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Reconciling science and religion: How Darwin led me to Islam

28 Jun 2017

This is a follow-up to the post 'My journey in science and religion' where I discussed the evolution of my religious beliefs since I was a child. We ended off that post with my interest in Islam being sparked after a conversation with my husband. I was then posed with a dilemma: Science or Religion? Surely they were incompatible; there were scholars who made a living and a career out of debating against one or the other. As a science student who worshiped science, how was I going to reconcile my passion for science and this new found religion?

Alhamdulillah, it was as if Allah heard my struggles and I was given timely guidance. In the last year of my university, I had the opportunity to take 2 modules on evolution. It was rather ironic that the topic that has been hindering my acceptance of Islam would eventually provide me with the answers and the push I needed to embrace the religion.


Creationism or Evolution?

On the origin of species, we were taught that there were 3 prevailing hypotheses, namely:

 

  1. Creationism: All species created as they are today by a Divine Creator

  2. Evolution: All species originated from a single-cell organism

  3. Intelligent Design: Initial forms of certain species were created by a Divine Creator. Subsequent speciation was a result of adaptation and evolution.

 

Prior to this module, I was only familiar with the first 2, and both did not sound right to me. Neither gave me that ‘click’. There is undeniable proof that the process of evolution occurs, i.e. the reproductive isolation and adaptation to the environment of species is something that is heavily documented.

There are also countless evidence of the process and mechanism of natural selection which changes the genetic composition of entire populations and communities. However, the limits to which I was able to accept this was simply that – animals changing slightly in terms of their appearances and sexual compatibility due to environmental factors.

I could accept that the finches observed by Darwin on the Galapagos had different beaks because of their diet. I could accept that 2 populations of the same species eventually formed 2 different species (by virtue of them being reproductively incompatible) due to an intertwining process of geographical and reproductive isolation over time. Such morphological and physical changes I could accept – but I could not accept that a single-cell organism gave rise to all the different species in the world.

If that was the case, why are there no small animal-like creatures in other planets by now? How is it that the only forms of life we can ever find on other planets are limited to micro-organisms?

The hypothesis of Intelligent Design was new to me. It was a combination of the 2 earlier theories. It proposes a Creator or Higher Power creates and places the first of some species on earth, after which the natural process of evolution occurred, which led to further adaptation and speciation that gives rise to new species.

This sat well with me. This gave me the ‘click’ that I had so desperately sought, allowing me to reconcile science and religion. This also caused a pronounced shift in me – it marked my transition from atheist to agnostic. I now adopted a worldview that had a place for a Creator, a divine being. Yet, I still wasn’t sure which was the truth.


The religious beliefs of Charles Darwin

Being the biggest fan of Darwin, I jumped at the opportunity to take a module named ‘Darwin and Evolution’.

I had expected to learn about Darwin’s work and his journey that led him to the conception of the theory of evolution. To my surprise, we spent one-third of the entire module on Darwin’s religious beliefs.

I had always assumed that Darwin would have been an atheist, considering how his theory had, in his time, single-handedly dealt one of the largest blows to the sanctity and inviolability of religion, faith and the Church. 

You mean Darwin was religious? How could that be?

Darwin had actually lived his early years as a pious individual. It was definitely hard for me, at that time, to imagine that the scientist whom I based so much of my atheistic ideologies on, had even contemplated to enroll in Cambridge as preparation to become a clergyman.

Darwin’s lifework arguably emerged from the awe and wonder of the world he developed since a young age, which he, interestingly, attributed to God. He pondered and saw the signs of God in nature, in its complexity and harmony. It amazed him how everything worked like clockwork.

There was a beauty that he observed in nature that he believed could not have been created by man. However, things took a turn shortly after, when he made the eventual decision to board a ship as a naturalist and began to ponder more about the world and his religion – this eventually led Darwin to lose his faith.

Darwin’s loss of faith was a gradual one and something he seemed to struggle with as he progressed from an orthodox Christianity during his Cambridge years to a deistic philosophy of nature by the time Origin of Species (1859) was published, to an agnostic position later in his life.

I was intrigued to learn that while his development of the theory of evolution did contribute to his apostasy, Darwin never thought that his science and religion were incompatible.

The first doubts Darwin had on the truth of the Bible; namely, doubts about the Gospel writers and events. He couldn’t accept God in the Old Testament which he likened to a “revengeful tyrant”.[1] All of which led him to “gradually [come] to disbelieve in Christianity [2]. Darwin, however, was unwilling to give up his belief. Yet, he found it “difficult... to invent evidence which would suffice to convince [him]”.[3]

The greatest hit was during the development of his evolutionary theory.

Darwin was someone who marveled at the beauty of the creations. He looked at the intricacies of flowers and insects, and the changing of seasons in nature and saw it in them signs of god. He could not phantom that such perfection came out of chance. In his mind, there was always a need for a Creator to create such beauty and harmony.

Things changed as he made progress in his theory of natural selection and evolution. Darwin's entirely materialistic account of evolution now provided him with answers he used to think was only answerable by God. Likewise, the more he convinced himself that new species emerge from pre-existing ones, there was no longer a need to believe in independent acts of creation. Perhaps the most fatal blow to his faith was the issue of human suffering, which Darwin considered to be the most powerful arguments against belief in a beneficent deity.

Darwin's theory of evolution replaced his idea of a beautiful, harmonious world with the brutality of competition and death of natural selection. At this point, Darwin was inclined toward a deistic philosophy of nature, where he could still believe in a Creator, a “God of first causes”, who “created primal forms capable of self-development”,[4] but no longer in an all-loving God.

 

Yet, even towards the end of his life, Darwin did not fully give up on his faith. In his personal letters to his friends and relatives, he maintained being agnostic never atheistic “in the sense of denying the existence of a God”.[5] He died still believing that religion and evolution were compatible.

A turning point

I related a lot to Darwin’s religious journey in having to reconcile science and religion. I was also heartened to learn about his journey in his religion and that he struggled as much as I did, in finding a way to frame his understanding of the world.

 

At the point of taking the module, I too had adopted a belief similar to his deistic philosophy of nature – a belief in a Higher Power or a Creator that created the world and all the natural laws within in. The established rules of the universe and the natural world, in turn, governed how the universe works – like clockwork – to this day.


Realizing that I had never dove deep into any religion, I became more open to learning more about them. I yearned to know how having a faith felt like, just like what Darwin had felt in his younger years, which filled him with so much awe and wonder for the world.
 

 

Reflections as a convert

It took me a long time to realize but the reason why I adored science was because it gave me the ‘click’, it was the only thing I knew that filled the gaps, the missing puzzle pieces I felt within me. When I first learnt about the concept of fitrah, my whole journey made sense to me.

Allah had placed in this world His signs and gave man the capacity to think, to rationalize. His signs are there for those who ponder and ruminate. I had been enraptured by His signs ever since I knew to make sense of the world.

But little did I know, I had unwittingly gotten myself caught up with the very instrument that observed, presented and elucidated these signs that I saw and experienced – so elegantly, no less – instead of the Creator of the signs itself.

Science was the bright shiny object I had been chasing, not knowing that it was merely reflecting the light off the sun – the source of all its light.

 

The field of science which I had worshiped for the past several years was relegated to a tool, an intellectual tool humans cleverly conceived to make sense of the world around us.

 

Science was no longer an all-powerful tool that was infallible, it was a means to an end – the end being human’s understanding of the universe and of how we came to be.

 

Naturally, I could no longer worship or obsess myself over something I realized was a tool, a mere instrument. Science was never an originator, a maker, a creator or a begetter.

 

Science is a man-made device, a clever tool man invented to study and better understand the fascinating world around us. And as with every knowledge we newly gather, it has to be of value. There should be an application of this knowledge to fit a missing puzzle piece in us – to bring us closer to our ultimate purpose.

 

In short, science was simply the study of the signs around us.

 

So why was I wasting my time on the tool when I could get behind the creator of the signs themselves? Who is the creator of these signs we see around us?

It took some guidance to realize that the ‘click’ that I yearned so desperately was not the end, but rather, a means to an end.  The ‘click’ was meant to lead me to something else, and that was the discovery of my purpose, of everyone’s purpose – to discover and worship God.

 

 

References:
[1]    Darwin, Autobiography, p. 62 (Darwin Online)
[2]    Darwin, Autobiography, p. 63 (Darwin Online)
[3]    Darwin, Autobiography, p. 64 (Darwin Online)
[4]    Darwin, Autobiography, p. 12 (Darwin Online)
[5]    Darwin, Francis, The life and letters of Charles Darwin, p. 304 (Darwin Online)

 

 

 

 

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