Islam, creationism, and anti-modernism

By Razib Khan | March 25, 2011 12:19 am

The other day I was listening to NPR and they were discussing at length the upheavals in the Arab world. Offhand I noted how the discussants would occasionally shift between “the Arab world” and “the Muslim world,” and naturally they all took for granted the central role that Islam would play in the Egyptian polity (and likely the Libyan one). There was nothing shocking about any of this, but imagine you engaged in some substitution. Switching from “Western world” to “Christian world” would sound old-fashioned and anachronistic. The European Union famously omitted mention of Christianity in its constitution several years back, from which erupted a controversy between its more religious and secular member nations (e.g., Poland vs. France). Western societies may still have Christianity as the dominant religion, but in most cultures it does not have the same relationship to the broader culture that it once did.

This is in part due to some radicals on this continent. As outlined in The Godless Constitution the United States of America was founded with a federal government which did not operate under the explicit umbrella of a religious institution. Nor did that federal government engage in any subsidy toward religion. This was a shocking act in its age, as Western civilization had long been predicated on the favor of the gods, and later the Christian God. Not just Western civilization. Even religiously pluralistic and diverse societies, such as that of Imperial Rome or Imperial China, freely mixed the sacred and the secular, under the presumption that the polity would benefit from heavenly favor. This was not exceptional, it was universal. Church and state have been united for all of human history, and only in the past few centuries has the idea of an explicitly secular political system taken hold.

America’s peculiar system derived from some structural constraints. Because of the religious diversity of the colonies the convention of having one established church would simply not do. Patrick Henry proposed, and campaigned in favor of, a more modest endorsement of a general Christian religion. Even this was rejected. I don’t need to go into the history of this. Though some of the Founders were orthodox Christians, most were not, and some, such as Thomas Jefferson, were only cultural Christians at best and rejected most of the tenets of the faith (at least during this period, there is evidence from correspondence that Jefferson mellowed into a more conventional liberal Episcopalianism in his old age).

The American experiment worked. France followed in its wake, though more unevenly, as the forces of organized Catholicism did not reach a modus vivendi with the secular state until the 20th century. In many Western societies where religious establishment remains in place, such as in Denmark or England, it is more a matter of custom and tradition than deep sentiment that God must bless the political nation. Granted, there is diversity in practice when it comes to the relationship of religion and state. Nations such as England and the Netherlands subsidize sectarian schools. Such a possibility is not on the table in the United States because of sanction imposed upon the practice by the legal framework by which the nation is bound.

I’m generally somewhat averse to simple ‘Whig histories’ which posit all societies as ascending up the scales of development to liberal democracy in the Western mold. I don’t think that all societies need to have the same set of values, with cultural “differences” being reduced to food, dress, music, and language. But I do think there are some cross-cultural universals which seem to bubble up out of the Zeitgeist. After the end of the Bronze Age all the cultures of the Ecumene rejected the practice of human sacrifice, which was relatively widespread before that period. Similarly, in the 20th century all societies accepted that chattel slavery was a violation of fundamental human rights. This is an attitude which contravenes the consensus of almost all societies before the 20th century. Even if there were societies where chattel slavery was not common, it generally did exist on the margins for selected individuals (e.g., prisoners of war).

With that in mind, oftentimes I can’t but help think that an 18th century Western analogy is appropriate for the Islamic world, in particular the Arab world + Iran + Afghanistan + Pakistan. There are no trenchant radicals in much of the Islamic world who revolt against the presuppositions at the heart of the civilization. Rather, radicals must remain within the broader framework, which takes Islamic truths as presuppositions. This was brought to mind when reading this editorial by a Pakistani liberal:

At a time when enlightenment is seeping through the Islamic heartland in the Middle East, jahiliyah (stubborn arrogance) is taking Pakistan by the throat. If the founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were alive today, he would live in fear, like the millions of others who share his secular ideology.

As Omar at Brown Pundits notes “a period of extreme ignorance and evil called “Jahiliyah” is itself a fantasy created by later Islamic writers to make the advent of Islam look even more impressive.” More recently in the West we’ve become familiar with the term from the writings of Sayyid Qutb, in some ways the intellectual forefather of Al-Qaeda. It is popular in particular with Salafists and their ilk, who idealize the first years of Islam, and denigrate what came before as darkness. An analogy might be the more extreme Christian apologists who deny the need for any integration of the thought of the pre-Christian world, consigning it to “pagan darkness” (this has generally been a minority position among the majority of the world’s Christians, though it has deep roots, going back at least to Tertullian).

What is notable is that a liberal Pakistani who was pleading for tolerance, pluralism, and rejection of fundamentalism, still had to operate within the verbal parameters set by the fundamentalists! This is probably function of the fact that these ideas are so ingrained in the audience, their truths are taken so much for granted, that the only leverage one has is to turn them against one’s antagonists. But it does say something about a society that a naked rejection of such exclusive axioms is not possible.

This is all a preamble to the recent controversy over a Muslim imam in London:

Dr Usama Hasan, vice-chairman at Leyton mosque and a senior lecturer in engineering at Middlesex University, ceased delivering Friday prayers after 25 years of service when 50 Muslim protesters disrupted his lecture by handing out leaflets against him and shouting in the mosque for his execution.

A statement from the secretary of the mosque, Mohammad Sethi, that was leaked to extremist websites, said Hasan had been suspended after his lecture resulted in “considerable antagonism” from the community and for his “belief that Muslim women are allowed to uncover their hair in public”.

“I’ve stopped giving prayers because they were interrupted by outsiders who were making some women members feel intimidated. Most people come to the mosque once a week for a quiet space to pray and find peace and inspiration and I want to respect that.”

However, he did issue a statement apologising for some of his “inflammatory” statements about evolution and retracted them.

My friend Josh Rosenau already addressed the issue at length over at Thoughts from Kansas. He concludes:

Excluding self-identified born-again, even Protestants are above the national average acceptance of evolution, on par with Catholics. Identifying as “born again” is a common way to identify evangelical Christians, and there is a growing pro-evolution movement within even evangelical Christianity. The major stronghold of anti-evolutionism in the US is not born again Christians, but fundamentalists – a much harder group to tease out in national surveys. I point this out only to emphasize that, just as fundamentalists or even evangelicals do not represent all of American Christianity, the few voices forcing Hasan to back down from his pro-evolution commentary do not represent all of Islam. There are other voices within Islam, and the key to promoting evolution in Muslim communities is elevating those calmer voices against the authoritarians seeking to enforce their fundamentalist ideology on Muslim communities in the West.

Josh offered some data on Creationism among Muslims. It was I believe from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, and the sample size was a pathetic N = 8. But here is a survey of religious (and irreligious) American physicians from the mid-2000s.

Q: Do you agree more with evolution or more with intelligent design?

Jewish, N = 346 Protestant, N = 417 Catholic, N = 304 Hindu, N = 63 Muslim, N = 40 Atheist, N = 65 No Religion, N = 98
More with evolution 86% 43% 61% 68% 20% 95% 86%
More with ID 12% 55% 36% 24% 73% 3% 12%
No Opinion 2% 20% 4% 8% 8% 2% 2%

The sample size is still small, but note that American M.D.s who are Muslim tend to be “more with Intelligent Design.” The contrast with Hindus is illustrative, because Hindus are likely to be Indian American immigrants, and so at least as “foreign” as Muslim doctors. Why the difference? The most plausible explanation is that there’s something within the culture of the Islamic religion which makes people averse to evolutionary theory.

My own childhood milieu was among mathematical and physical scientists from South Asia, a disproportionate number of whom were Muslim. From what I could tell most of these individuals were what we would term Creationists. I know this because several of them found my interest in paleontology amusing, as they “knew” that evolution was silly bunk. My father, a physical chemist, is of that mindset. Since I’ve never been religious, and have found anti-evolutionist sentiment bizarre and repulsive from even a very young age, I never followed up the initial expressions of Creationist belief with further questions or discussion (also, these men were from cultures where having a deep religious discussion with a seven year old when you were finishing up a post-doc in statistics would seem pretty peculiar).

But the American Muslim community is not where the focus is on here. Rather, we’re talking about a Muslim community in England where a religious professional has to recant his beliefs in public for fear of his personal safety! Now this is rather barbaric, and more 17th century than 18th. And yet it’s not surprising. The Muslim community of Britain is among the most regressive and backward of all the Western nations. This is not necessarily because they are new; much of the community now consists of men and women born in England. The well known reactionary tendencies of the British Muslim community stick out in the survey literature like a sore thumb. For example, from Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations. Below are two figures which show the chasm between European Muslims in Britain, Germany, and France, as well as the specialness of the British Muslim community:

As The Guardian (not The Daily Telegraph) noted:

The most dramatic contrast was found in attitudes towards homosexuality. None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable. 1,001 non-Muslim Britons were interviewed.

And just so you know, according to the 2001 Census ~70% of Muslims were born in the United Kingdom. The Guardian also reported on a poll which indicated that “36 per cent of Muslims aged between 16 and 24 believe those who convert to another faith should be punished by death.” Young people are stupid and don’t always consider the implications of their belief, but the fact that a bit over 1/3 of Young British Muslims would even accede to such a position (which, granted, has historically been the dominant one in Islam) is a measure of the temperature within the community.

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True reviews a lot of the other data on Islam and evolution. Coyne is trenchant in his hostility to religion generally and Islam specifically, to put it mildly. I don’t identify as a New Atheist, and I don’t agree with the overall model with which Coyne is operating. That is, that there’s a necessary connection between anti-evolutionism and Islam. Many of the Muslims who I have known personally do think there is such a connection (and please, I’m not going to be too excited if someone in the comments demands that I go meet some Muslims and reeducate myself. I got off the phone with my mom, a Muslim, a few hours ago). But there are other Muslims who reject this view. But we need to be frank about the real distribution of beliefs and attitudes.

A particular set of “anti-modernist” stances go together, for whatever reason. British Muslims, and the Pakistani Muslim community of northern England in particular, tend to be anti-modernist in their deepest commitments. I have relatives in northern England who are immigrants from Bangladeshi Muslim backgrounds. Even they are somewhat taken aback by the aggressive anti-modernism of native born Pakistani British Muslims of that region.

Let’s get real, evolution is the least of the worries when it comes to the British Muslim community. It’s absolutely no surprise that a heterodox imam was brought to heel by his reactionary flock and well placed activists in the broader community. I am rather confident that more than 0 out of 500 British Muslims would accept evolution, but it is a small enough minority that there simply isn’t any possibility that they can effect the overall direction of the debate. Britain is stuck with this community and its values for the indefinite future. There’s no need to be nuanced about that truth.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism, Culture, Religion
MORE ABOUT: Creationism, Religion
  • Dunc

    The Muslim community of Britain is among the most regressive and backward of all the Western nations.

    The interesting question is: why?

  • John Morrison

    This is a wonderful and insightful article. As a Christian I have found the rigid beliefs of secular socialists and Islam very threatening to my faith, both a closed loop of thought, and a clear danger to the general social health. The “Isms” of culture are a Ego persona’s in mass, and will lead to humanities’ Armageddon.
    John 6:35

  • Kees

    I’m just speculating here, but I think the fundamentalism in Britain might be due to the relatively low % of Muslims in Britain, compared to those other countries. I know that the strongest opposition to (Muslim) immigration is not present in cities with a large number of Muslims, but rather in the suburbs with hardly any Muslims at all. Consequently, I would guess that the Muslims in Britain either try to defend their beliefs, or denounce their religion completely. –> in such an environment, it would be very hard to go to a more relaxed form of religion.

    This surprised me more:

    2 out of 65 atheist American physicians support intelligent design. I guess that’s not really statistically significant, but still, how can you believe in intelligent design if you don’t believe in God?

  • Jim Johnson

    Not to ignore the rest of a rather interesting article, but my brain snagged on the first table. 3% of atheist physicians agreed more with intelligent design than evolution in the mid 2000’s? Athiest physicians? Really?

  • onur

    Not to ignore the rest of a rather interesting article, but my brain snagged on the first table. 3% of atheist physicians agreed more with intelligent design than evolution in the mid 2000′s? Athiest physicians? Really?

    There are always eccentric minorities in such things, however tiny.

  • Terry

    @2 (Jim Johnson):

    I’m guessing that that is a statistical anomaly. The survey asked people to evaluate a concept and split those people up into categories based on another concept. Concepts are impossibly hard to define accurately and consistently. What one person terms an atheist, another would term an agnostic, and a third would simply call irreligious. Someone may define themselves as atheist when all they mean is that they believe in a god but don’t practice any rituals. They may believe that they are atheist when they believe that aliens designed humanity.

  • Denis Vluegt

    Why not? Instead of the monolith in “2001” jumpstarting human civilization a million years ago, it comes in a billion years earlier to jumpstart life. An atheist should have no principled objection to such a notion.

  • Razib Khan

    but I think the fundamentalism in Britain might be due to the relatively low % of Muslims in Britain, compared to those other countries. I know that the strongest opposition to (Muslim) immigration is not present in cities with a large number of Muslims, but rather in the suburbs with hardly any Muslims at all.

    pakistan, and south asia generally, has a very regressive population as a whole from a western perspective. that is probably the major reason. the french muslims are n. african, whose source community is more secular. additionally, britain has a very large muslim pop compared to the USA, and on par with germany, and if you count religious believers, with france. also, this is false that opposition to muslim immigration is not present in cities. often right-wing parties in europe receive boosts from non-muslim populations within the cities, though they may not be able to win because it’s a minority.

  • Razib Khan

    i think the atheists who believe in intelligent design are survey error. ppl who aren’t atheists checking that by mistake. u always get a # of atheists in surveys who are creationist, or consider themselves “very religious” in the crosstabs. my usual assumption is error on the part of participants.

  • Uncle Al

    Satan’s total annual operating budget is $(USD)zero. Zero man-hours are annually planetarily devoted to supplicating Satan. Go with the engineering solution.

    Governments’ crushing take and imposed losses cannot be Satanic, “…one nation, under God….” Can God make a collection plate so vast that even He cannot fill it? Sure! ALL OF THEM. Go with the engineering solution.

    The only way to be intolerant of Queer Nation in Britain is to repopulate the island with your own kind. And so it comes to pass.

  • omar

    The notion that Muslims in Britain are especially reactionary due to being relatively small in number may not be true…if that were the case, then Muslims in America would be even more fundamentalist (smaller percentage) and Muslims in El-Salvador would all be flaming fanatics…well, actually the ONE muslim I know from El-Salvador is something of a fanatic, so there may be something in that…but seriously, I think the main reasons are:

    1. Working class migrants came from a relatively poor and uneducated part of Mirpur and banded together tightly in a rather racist England in the 1950s and 1960s.

    2. But that alone was NOT enough to explain the fanatics. To explain that, you have to look at the spread of Wahabi influenced imams and their unopposed reign from the 1970s till now. The community was told it had a true religion and the true religion was taught by these imams. This same true religion had been tempered by local cultural traditions and lack of modern educational brainwashing in Mirpur. In England, education was efficiently modern and uniform, previous cultural adjustments were now regarded as “jahiliya” and the Arabs claimed to be the perfect models of an Islam the community had always regarded as true but never known in such was a perfect storm. …
    by now, the trend is set and the community is having a very hard time shaking it off. It will take generations to undo the damage.

  • Teapot

    An interesting article. I think you are right that the reactionary nature of such a high proportion of british moslems is probably a function mostly of where they emigrated from, i.e. rural pakistan and bangladesh. I remember a pakistani (not british pakistani) telling me that societies in pakistan generally got more reactionary the further north you got. I’ve often seen it stated that 2nd generation immigrants would often assimilate but then 3rd generation would react against this, though I’ve no idea how robust this finding is.

    I assumed that the “atheist” group in the survey, distinct from “no religion”, meant buddhists, taoists, communists etc.

    If you’ve not seen it I recommend the film “East is East” which deals with this sort of thing.

  • abb3w

    Another possibility besides survey error is they stumbled across a Raelian or von Danikenite.

    Further, that not everyone worries much about how logically self-consistent their world view is might also play a factor.

  • Martijn

    Besides the 2nd reason Omar mentions in #11 – which of course has a lot do with Saudi-Arabia getting rich and thereby being able to spread wahabism – another factor I’ve read about is the rise of the education level in the Muslim world. When the people in countries like Morocco and Turkey were largely illiterate, they more or less did what the religious establishment told them. Now they can read the Koran themselves, but they do not have any knowledge of theology, so they fall back on the most literal, straightforward interpretation. This is (mutatis mutandis) the same thing that happened in Europe during the Reformation or, more recently, in groups of evangelicals who eschew a theologically trained minister, but use bible-reading groups.

  • james

    Just on the atheist intelligent designers: Irish surveys often produce results that show a section of the population who define themselves as Romean catholic but don’t believe in a personal god!

  • Zachary Kurtz

    A had a good Muslim friend from undergrad who believed that all organisms evolve, except for humans because we were created by Allah. She’s now in dental school.

  • onur

    Irish surveys often produce results that show a section of the population who define themselves as Romean catholic but don’t believe in a personal god!

    Clearly they are defining themselves against Protestants. In Turkey some atheists define themselves as Sunni Muslim in order to set themselves apart from any association with the Alevi minority.

  • Razib Khan

    Clearly they are defining themselves against Protestants

    it’s not totally strange for people to have a cultural identification of religious affiliation. in places like scandinavia it is probably the majority position, but you can find small minorities with this stance even among american christians. only radical protestants who emphasize the personal and individual aspect of religious confession and profession seem to lack this segment of “belongers without believing.”

    i do agree in places which are religiously polarized that the “belonging without believing” has a somewhat different valence though.

  • Pingback: Linkpost 03-25-11 | Amerika: New Right, Conservationist, Traditionalist, Deep Ecology and Conservative Thought()

  • Ali

    I agree with the idea that anti-evolution beliefs are part of a larger constellation of anti-modernist beliefs, but there is something specific about evolution that makes it the hardest barrier to break even for otherwise modernist Muslims. God’s role as the creator – and especially as the creator of life – is His most fundamental attribute in the Muslim (and Christian) belief system. Once you accept that the creation of life in all its forms has no need of God, there is no further reason to believe in God at all. This isn’t true for such things as acceptance of slavery, the insistence on women veiling themselves, or even killing apostates.

    For many years, I have taught graduate courses on complex systems to engineering students at a large university. The fundamental principle I communicate to my students is the possibility of self-organization – that order can emerge from disorder on its own, in apparent (but not actual) contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics. Over the years, this has generated interesting responses. Though I stay away from any religious discussion in class and focus purely on mechanisms and principles, I have engaged with students about these issues outside the classroom. A similar discussion arises when we get to the mind-body problem in ascribing purely material causes to intelligence and autonomous behavior in my clasess on artificial intelligent systems. Interestingly, I have found that the skepticism about these views is very limited, but comes from students of all backgrounds. The most vociferous skepticism I have heard in 15 years came from Chinese students who — for cultural reasons I don’t pretend to understand — seemed to consider evolution to be yet another Western myth. Others who expressed skepticism have included Christian, Jewish and Hindu students. Surprisingly, none of the many Muslim students I have had have expressed disagreement — possibly because they think that, as a Muslim myself, I am just engaging in some complex form of taqiyyah:-).

  • Razib Khan

    . Once you accept that the creation of life in all its forms has no need of God, there is no further reason to believe in God at all.

    that does not explain why muslims, and fundamentalists xtians, reject theistic evolution. theistic evolution is the overwhelmingly dominant position among religious jews, and all christians who are no literalist protestants.

  • Larry, San Francisco

    What about Hindus and Sikhs in England. My understanding is that they are much more integrated into British society. Is that true?

  • Teapot

    A late reply to #22.

    Its hard to be anything other than anecdotal here, but I suspect most people in Britain would agree that moslem immigrants are considerably less assimilated/integrated than any other immigrant group.

    For example, Leicester has a very large number of asian immigrants, but a high proportion of them are hindus and sikhs, and Leicester is always conspicuous by its absence from any lists of places with ethnic/sectarian disputes.

  • ackbark

    I would add that in addition to the Muslims in Britain being from families from more backward areas, that they have all grown up in a time in Britain when extremist yobbism is the dominant cultural style.

    I think the two things go together into a perfect recipe for fascism.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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