Philosophical Reflection Upon Observed
Evolutionary Phenomena

By Dr. M. H. Durrani

       In this short article I am reviewing grounds which seem to make it reasonable for us to believe in God, and rest confidently in Him. There is space only to lay stress upon a very few of the grounds upon which people have actually built in the past. I am choosing certain of the grounds which happen to have been more or less reinstated of late in an unexpected manner or by unexpected people. Anything that can be said thus shortly must be scrappy and inadequate. Nothing can be, perhaps, completely or finally settled. What I am aiming at is to point the direction in which I fancy we may hopefully look for the light, and to bid those who are unsettled in faith, and indeed, all students, to pause before they drift any further from the old path. I hope also, by the agency of my readers, to reach some who have perhaps definitely given up their faith, for reasons which may have been plausible fifty years ago or less, but which are distinctly less plausible, if not impossible today, in view of the progress of thought in physical science and philosophy

       The present is a moment of unique crisis in many departments of knowledge. Many things are challenged today which were dumbly accepted, if not enthusiastically defended, a few years ago: Islamic morality, for instance. This constitutes the peculiar challenge to the Millat of the twentieth century - to defend a morality which, if not reached in personal conduct, was hitherto practically unquestioned in theory. On the other hand, many theological and other views which were ridiculed fifty years ago are regarded as almost self-evident facts today. This is particularly true of some theories of the nature of the physical universe, of the belief in the spiritual nature of man, and in the existence of God, (if not in the perfection of His character or power).

       We cannot really keep the two subjects distinct. Physical science, so far as it is merely descriptive of phenomena, can scarcely clash with theism or support it, but physical scientists themselves have often commented on the philosophical implications of their descriptions and theories. Whereas in the past their comments have often been atheistic, sceptic, or agnostic, today they are often idealistic and theistic. This new attitude calls for new treatment.

       The conflict between science and religion has passed into a new stage. At the present moment many of the more enlightened physical scientists vie with philosophers and theologians in discounting the theory of materialism with reference to things that are thought to be dead, and the conception of mechanism as a sufficient explanation of things that are said to be alive. Moreover, it is highly significant that this change of outlook has not been forced upon the physicist from without by any overmastering influence or authority, whether of theology or philosophy. It seems simply to have emerged among the telescopes and formula as the hypothesis most likely to account for observed physical phenomena. I do not wish to imply that theology has overcome physical science, or that physical science has become for all time idealistic. I think it probably is so. At the moment, at any rate, there is nothing short of a revolution in many departments of physical science. There may be a counter-revolution. There may be many. But it is no longer possible to maintain that only ignorance of scientific investigations leaves a man free to believe in God or a spiritual world. It is no longer possible to regard it as foolish to believe that the present universe had a beginning and will have an end, and has a significance and a purpose.

       We have a breathing space, but we must use it wisely. Men can breathe in their sleep, but this is no time for sleep. We may be grateful to those who have given us this breathing space. We may well treat them with respect, as we must honour them for their courage. We may hope that their theories will prevail in their own territory, in order that there may be no temptation for physical scientists to invade theistic territory with any hostile purpose; but we must not let the world imagine that we build our theology upon friendly theories of this, or any other, passing age in science or philosophy. What we believe to be the eternal truth of the Word of God must, indeed be interpreted afresh to every age in the thought and in the language of the age, but what we regard as the eternal truth of the Word of God must never be tied to a philosophy or language which is ephemeral.

       In pre-Darwinian days we believed in the special creation of species, rather than in the gradual evolution of species, but so, for the most part, did the scientist of the day. We rightly maintained certain ultimate beliefs in the last fifty years, in spite of skepticism and agnosticism. Now we are being quite largely vindicated by people who are the descendants of her former persecutors. But she must not identify herself too closely with the theories of even the most friendly of scientists, for no one whose opinion is of any value suppose that the twentieth-century science is either perfect or final. It is, however, distinctly hopeful and for that we are intensely grateful. We pause, we breathe, we reconsider our own faith, we grip afresh what by our own proper methods we judge to be its essentials, and we preach it to this generation in the form in which we think it will best appeal, but we hold ourselves free to reinterpret what we believe to be the Eternal Truth in another philosophy and another language to the men of another age or another school of thought.

       Take one example of this suggestion. It seems fairly natural for the mind to pass backward from a contrivance to a contriver, from a watch to a watch-maker. Paley argued that the wonderful structure of the many species of plants and animals, and their striking adaptation to the conditions in which we find them, proved them to have been designed by an ingenious Creator. Darwinism was a shock to those who depend upon Paley's arguments, because it professed to show that these wonderful structures were not original and separate endowments of the separate species with reference to environments which were also designed with reference to the structures; but that they came about, for the most part, very gradually and progressively, according to certain seeming laws of nature almost automatic in their action, such as an innate tendency to produce an infinite supply of variations, the struggle for existence the survival of the fittest, and the like. Paley's argument was quite a good one for its age. It was a philosophy and a theology built upon the best current orthodox physical science. Scientists themselves in Paley's time believe, almost to a man, that the species were from the first separate and distinct.

       When Darwin propounded his theory it was criticized about as much by scientists as by theologians. He knew that it would be, and at first he was apologetic. In 1844, he wrote to Joseph Hooker: "I am almost convinced that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable." (Life and Letters, vol. ii, 23). But this conception of the fixity and special creation of species was a concern of the scientist and Paley was justified in making use of it and in making the particular use of it that he did. If each complex organism, once upon a time, suddenly appeared in complex conditions, to which it was minutely and marvelously adapted, there was a reasonable evidence of a designing Mind. If Paley was wrongly instructed in physical science, the responsibility was not primarily his. It was more the responsibility of the scientists. Darwinism, I suppose we all admit, is a truer description of the way in which species have appeared than that of the contemporaries of Paley. But, as Canon Storr asked some years ago:

"Is there less evidence of design because a structure has come slowly into being? If a cathedral takes twenty years to build, do we therefore infer that there was no architect?" (Development and Divine Purpose, pg.40).

So with some other features of Darwinism: they are not necessarily antagonistic to religion. It has been necessary to accommodate our apologetic to evolutionary thought, but the details of Darwinism itself are not entirely unchallenged in the ranks of science, and I suppose no one fancies that the last word has been said.

       Paley's appeal to individual structures as finished products has lost its force, but nature as a whole, and the process by which it has come to be what it is, seem sufficiently purposive to suggest a design and a Designer. As Storr, again, remarks:

"This appeal of the whole comes home to the modern mind with special power, just because we have learned to think of the world as the scene of a great process which is slowly moving towards its consummation..."

Order and progress, then, in their broader aspects, are the marks in Nature upon which the theologist today places special emphasis. In addition, he gives great prominence to the thought of the end which the evolutionary process has reached. Man as the crown of the world's development engages his attention.

       We distinguish three divisions in the natural world: the inorganic, the organic, and the spiritual, or that realm of moral, intellectual, and religious activity and endowment which is the peculiar mark of man. Of these three divisions, the two lower prepare the way for the third, and are its indispensible conditions; while within the highest division you find personalities, moral and spiritual beings, who appear to possess a unique worth and value and who form a social kingdom of personalities which seems to be a worthy end and goal for the long striving of the past. Man, if this view of his existence is tenable, is no accident in a world which is theatre for the play of blind forces, but represents the purpose towards the realization of which all the earlier stages of evolution were tending.

       The theologian today is unwise if he pins his theology to a passing mode of scientific thought. Physical science must change as it lives and grows. Scientists and theologians alike have been wont to draw attention to the intrinsic differences between inorganic and organic, between vegetable and animal, between animal and human, and between lower and higher levels of consciousness, intelligence and spirituality. Theologians of the last generation have used these apparent distinctions and discontinuities as the marks of the epochs which are sufficiently distinct and startling for the foundation of a plausible apologetic. In some instances, as the distinction between so-called dead matter and living, it seems eminently possible for the theologian to be rhetorical and dogmatic. At the bottom of my heart - or perhaps it would be truer to say at the surface of it - I feel that I should like this course, but I am persuaded that it is better, at the moment, to resist the temptation if we are seeking grounds for rest in God. To lay stress upon the discontinuity and the possibility if Divine Intervention has a kind of philosophic, sporting - gambling - interest, which is not the ground of rest.

       Let us be clear. It is acknowledged that science can describe the processes of nature, but that it cannot explain their cause or ultimate purpose. It can observe the behavior of living creatures, but it cannot say what life is. It cannot be said that any experiment has yet been able to discover what life is, or to produce it apart from the touch of pre-existing life. It is possible that it never will; but chemical analysis is being followed by experiment in chemical synthesis, and is meeting with some success in building up compounds which, at all events, approximate to those which are closely associated with life; moreover we are learning more every day as to the particular conditions under which life makes its appearance, and the conditions under which it disappears and seems to become impossible. Who is to say what may be discovered next?

       True, the difference between the inorganic and the organic is superficially too great to be ignored. It seems to be fundamental enough; but I should be sorry to base my belief in God upon the maintenance of any ultimate or intrinsic distinction between them. I should not like to live in terror that I must cease to believe in God if organic matter should ever be found, under certain condition, to exhibit the phenomena of life without a known contact with pre-existing life. I prefer to dissociate my theism from such problematic issue. If such a contingency should arise, I would simply revise my conception of inorganic matter.

       I could no longer call it "dead" if it had within itself the power of spontaneously producing the phenomena of life. I prefer to think of God as concerned with the whole process of evolution rather than acting only in the gaps which our ignorance yet leaves in our descriptions of the course of events. A theology built upon missing links between inorganic and organic - or between vegetable and animal, or between monkey and man - is not a faith which induces rest in God. It rather means anxiety lest a God who has only been thought to exist in gaps should - like air in a concertina- gradually be squeezed out. Many an unbeliever will gladly make us a present of the unknown and unknowable, indeed, for the immediate present, a gift of all the spaces left by missing links; but that is not my conception of Allah who is not 'Incomprehensible'. Again, discontinuous evolution, I believe, has more to say for itself than formerly, and what I believe is called emergent evolution is highly suggestive for the philosopher and the theologian, but I would rather depend on the implications of the whole process, and find my God all through. A God who is thought to live only in the gaps left by scientific ignorance stands a risk of being lost in the march of progress.

       Islam recognizes no conflict of knowledge with faith; it is the only religion in the world to place the acquisition and cultivation of knowledge with the worship of God. In Islam, therefore, religion and science become correlated. Science is progressive, just as Islam is a religion for all humanity and also a religion for all times. In the words of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) to explore the realm of nature and the hidden truths of life is not merely a service to the cause of humanity but also an act of the glorification of Almighty God. He has taught us that the acquisition of knowledge is incumbent on everyone, male or female.

       The conflict between religion and science in the West is essentially a conflict between science and Christianity. While discussing the conflict, the Westerners do not take into consideration Islam. This is why religion is successfully criticized in the West.

       Our knowledge of the universe should have been an aid in our quest of truth but such is the paradox of Western scientific mind that the more it acquires knowledge, the greater is its failure to apprehend truth. In this scientific age, the moral aspect of life has been divorced from the material. And it is as a result of this weakness that so many new inventions and discoveries which would have added to the happiness of life are being used for the destruction of the world and the extinction of the human race.

       We have divided life into water-tight compartments, although every aspect of life is related to the other. Thus, the politician sets aside the moral aspect of life; and hence he is not successful in discharging his duties honestly. This division of various aspects of life has deprived it of the harmony which should be its essential constituent. The various aspects of life are like compartments of a train. If a separate engine is used to pull each compartment of a train it cannot be expected to reach its destination safely. Similarly, if the different aspects of life are guided by different principles, the only result would be disharmony. Islam builds the structure of human thought on faith. It starts where science ends. The question of conflict between Islam and science does not arise. As a matter of fact, Islam provides a philosophy of life, and develops an attitude of mind which ensures a balanced development of all aspects of life and the fulfillment of all the urges of man. In the structure of Islamic thought, science becomes and effective and potent means of adding to the happiness of life and the fulfillment of its possibilities. Moreover, it provides science with a foundation and motive force without which science has so far failed to achieve the objectives of progress and enlightenment.

(See Part III)

Continuation from: Part I





Qur'aan: Meaning & Explanatory


Ethics in Islam

The Prophet's Sermons

Selected Khutbat

Sayings of The Prophet (S.A.W.)



Islamic Poems

Islamic Quizzes

Colour Me

Other Islamic Links

About Us

Contact Us