Unhold Story

A Synopsis of Malik et al.’s “An untold story in biology: the historical continuity of
evolutionary ideas of Muslim scholars from the 8th century to Darwin’s time”


In their article “An untold story in biology: the historical continuity of evolutionary ideas of
Muslim scholars from the 8th century to Darwin’s time”, Aamina H. Malik, Janine M.
Ziermann & Rui Diogo sheds some light on the role of pre-Darwinian Muslim scholars in
advancing evolutionary concepts. Western science tends to foreground Darwin, while the
contribution of Islamic scholars gets ignored. This paper is Malik et al.’s attempt at correcting the narrative for the sake of historical accuracy in the field of science, particularly biology, as well as religion. The following essay will provide an abridged synopsis of the ideas discussed in their paper.

Muslim conceptions of Darwinism

Talking about evolution and Islam simultaneously is quite a controversial and touchy issue.
As such, 20 the century Muslim scholars came to associate this concept with atheism or
materialism. Today, the religion/science war has been shifted from the West to the East,
where Muslim scholars reject Darwinism entirely. Some countries even went as far as
declaring fatwas upon it. Some Muslims, however, found a middle ground between their faith and evolutionary ideas. Others accepted ‘non-human species’ evolution only. This ‘anti evolutionary’ view resembles how non-Western scholars are perceived by the West, as
scientist John William Draper states: “Sometimes, not without surprise, we meet with ideas
with which we flatter ourselves with having originated in our own times. … [However,
Muslim scholars] carried them much farther than we are disposed to do …”.

Western prejudices against Muslim Evolutionists

Draper observes a historical bias against Muslim scholars. For instance, though they
contributed to the fields of mathematics or medicine, no one seems to question their lack of contribution to the field of human anatomy. While they played a crucial role from the time of Galen’s death till the 13th century – also known as the ‘Dark Ages in science’ – their theories are neglected as ‘religious’ or ‘philosophical’ while much more conjectural or improbable ideas are recognized by Westerners. Muslim scholars are passively and merely reduced to being ‘translators’. This is clearly stated by a leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century Ernst Mayr: “The Arabs, so far I can determine, made no important contributions to biology … it was, however, through Arab translations that Aristotle again became known to the Western world–this was perhaps the greatest contribution that the Arabs made to the history of biology.”

Eight key pre-Darwinian Muslim scholars with evolutionary ideas

Upon clarifying the methods used in their research (e.g. identifying its rationale, scopes,
and selection of primary and secondary literature reviews), Malik et al. go on to explore the
evolutionary thoughts of eight significant Muslim scholars who came before Darwin. One
idea, i.e. the theme of ‘kingdoms’ in nature, was common among these scientists. The
sections below will discuss their concepts chronologically.

Al-Jahiz and the role of God in Natural

Selection 8 the century Iraqi biologist Abu Uthman Amr Bin Bahr Al-Fukaymi Al-Basri (776–868), more commonly-known as Al-Jahiz, is largely regarded as the first Muslim thinker to offer an evolutionary biological theory. He is recognized for his Kitab Al-Hayawan (Book of
Animals), where he theorizes the natural selection of animals. It is claimed that his theory
laid the foundation for the works of 18th & 19th-century scientists, along with Darwin, except in a contemporary scientific framework.

Al-Jahiz pointed out the environmental factors that give birth to the traits of adaptability in
organisms. To exemplify, he hypothesizes that human skin tone varies due to environmental conditions that differ between northern and southern regions. This is akin to Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest. But, what is different between these two scientists is that Al-Jahiz identified this development of new survival traits as the actions of God’s divine will to maintain the harmony of nature.

According to him, natural selection occurs because animals have an innate will to live, which requires them to be biologically fit. Stronger species always adapt more with a lower rate of mortality. He uses rats as an example. Rats eat weaker and smaller animals while protecting themselves from superior predators, who in turn are eaten by larger predators. Al-Jahiz finds this to be similar to the human condition. His work also addresses the evolution of ‘al-miskh’ (or the original quadrupedal) which led the way for dogs, wolves, and so on. He parallels human evolution with the evolution of a type of ape called ‘al-maskh’, where environmental factors like pollution and dust caused changes in some Moroccan people, just like they did to the apes.

Ibn Miskawayh and the Evolutionary Progression

Perhaps influenced by Al-Jahiz is the 10th century Persian Philosopher Ibn Miskawayh (930–1030), who talks about the evolutionary progression from plants to the animal kingdom (including insects) and finally to human beings, an idea similar to those of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and others. His approach to this natural hierarchy in evolution is quite contemporary according to S.S. Hawi and Mohammad Iqbal.

He distinguished humans from animals through the application of intellect as a gift from God. As both discrimination and spirituality came about, man’s psychological state evolved from a primitive to a civilized condition. In his works, ibn Miskawayh talks about how one species transformed into another, a concept known as ‘species transmutation’. He theorized that God gave energy to matter, which evaporated into the water, and then came mineral life. Eventually, vegetation developed, which led to the birth of animals. Analogous to the ape concept of AlJahiz, these animals evolved into apes and finally into barbaric humans. Ultimately, the most civilized and intellectual human beings emerged.

The Ikhwan Al-Safa’s Kingdoms of Dependency

A 10th-century Iraq-based mysterious society of Arab Muslim ‘Pre-Sufi’ scholars was known
as the Ikhwan Al-Safa, which means ‘Brethren of Purity. The philosophical and scientific
influence of their work was disseminated up to Spain. One of their key contributions in exploring the fields of cosmology, philosophy, logic, theology, and mathematics is the Islamic encyclopedia called ‘Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa (translated as the ‘Epistles of the Brethren of Purity). On par with Aristotle’s ‘great chain of being’, the Ikhwan Al-Safa categorized everything into the interconnected ‘kingdoms’ of minerals, plants, and animals: “The first stage of the plant kingdom is connected with the last stage of minerals and the highest stage of the plant kingdom with the first stage of animal … the highest stage of the animal kingdom is connected with the first stage of the human.” Unlike the previous evolutionists who talked about apes, this group identified the elephant as being the most intelligent animal, with extremely complex mental faculties that are close to humans. Their classification focused on the internal and existential qualities of matters and creatures instead of the outer physical aspects. In their organization of the kingdoms, the Ikhwan Al-Safa talked about the role of God and how all that He created was to benefit something else. Thus, the imperfect benefactors in these kingdoms always came before the beneficiaries who depended upon them. For example, animals preceded humans and were born with all the necessary organs and membranes that they needed to keep themselves alive and protect themselves against harm. Upon reaching their supreme state, then came the humans.

However, it is important to note that the Ikhwan Al-Safa’s concept of adaptability and
evolution largely varies from that of Darwin’s. They argued that the forms, genus, and
species of matter are conserved due to their ‘celestial cause’. They stressed that the
‘Universal Soul of the spheres’, i.e. God is responsible for all changes on Earth and that one
species cannot simply transform into another. Individuals, on the other hand, are always in
motion. In their belief, the ‘emanative’ process of God’s creation simultaneously took place
immediately and in a gradual sequence.

Although their concept deviates from the modern ideas of evolution, what remains alike is
that before animals could adapt to their surroundings, there were plants to service them. And these plants were preceded by the mineral kingdom. Plants serve as the middleman between animals and the four elements, providing animals with the required forms and nutrition just like a mother would do for a child. Plants’ role is vital because it has the transformative power of changing basic matter into digestible pieces such as seeds, leaves, fruit, etc.

Reproduction, Natural & Artificial Selection, and Speciation in Al-Beruni’s work

The 11th-century astronomer, mathematician, geographer, and historian Abu Alraihan
Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al-Beruni (973–1048) was the first Muslim scholar who objectively
wrote about Hinduism in his work called ‘India’, and felt that it was his religious duty to
study nature. His concepts incorporated both religious (Quranic) and scientific approaches. J.Z. Wilczynski comments that Al-Beruni had suggested the same basic notion, but almost 800 years before Darwin, of how natural selection through survival of the fittest occurs via the extinction of other species. Using the same analogy of ‘kingdoms’, he opined that since
humans reached perfection by migrating through the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms,
they possess the nature of the creatures of these other kingdoms within. Just like Darwin theorized, in his book ‘Kitab al-Jamahir’ Al-Beruni talks about how mankind evolved from monkeys, ascending to the level of utmost perfection, unlike other animals who are beneath humans. This echoes the contemporary scientific idea that due to evolutionary restrictions human beings contain characteristics that are similar to those of our
distant ancestry.

Though influenced by Hellenistic scholars, Al-Beruni’s main concepts – which are
comparable to Darwin’s evolution – can be found in ‘On Vasudeva and the Wars of the
Bharata’, a chapter in his book about Hinduism. Here, he talks about the ‘general natural
processes in the whole world and the ‘four different phenomena’. These phenomena are:
1. Unlimited Procreation: The world’s survival is dependent on sowing and
reproducing. Both processes grow through time, and their growth is limitless, whereas
the planet has a finite amount of resources.
2. Species Expansion: Due to natural selection, particular plants or animals establish
themselves as a species, having a certain structure and reproducing numerous times,
and taking up residence on earth by dispersing their kind as much as possible.
3. Artificial Selection: A farmer determines how much his corn will grow and cuts off
the rest. Similarly, the forester only preserves the high-quality branches. And
likewise, bees eliminate other inoperative bees from their beehive.
4. Natural Selection: Nature does not differentiate between species because its actions
are identical in all circumstances. It eliminates the trees’ leaves and fruits to make
place for other leaves and fruits.

Additionally, religion has a space in Al-Beruni’s evolutionary theory. He credited God’s
unlimited wisdom with all-natural processes, including the “imperfections” that may occur
throughout an animal’s evolution and maturation. Whenever an animal is nonconforming to
the likes of its species, this demonstrates that the infinitely sublime God can design anything as He pleases and it can deviate from the norm, transcending the limits of our thought processes.

Ibn Tufayl’s concept of Biogenesis

The 12th century Andalusian Muslim scholar from Spain Abu Bakr ibn Tufail (1110–1185)
was a physician and teacher of philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Commonly known as
Abubacer or ibn Tufayl, he is renowned for the novel ‘Risala Hayy ibn Yaqzan fi asrar alhikmat al-masriqiyya’. This Arabic novel has been translated into Latin, English, German, French, and Dutch respectively. It influenced notable works like Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (Attar and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’, along with many other Arabic, Islamic and European philosophies and literature during the 16th to 19th centuries. This book narrates the lonesome journey of survival of a boy named Hayy. It reflected ibn Tufayl’s own philosophical beliefs about a naturalistic genesis of life while also implying evolution, that human beings were formed as a result of the intermingling of natural elements, be it through an impulsive or progressive process.

Based on Hayy’s descriptions, S. S. Hawi interpreted that ibn Tufayl believed in the existence of organic chemicals in an inorganic environment before life came about. The inorganic chemicals gradually morphed, resulting in a sporadic genesis of life, also known as ‘biogenesis’. According to the novel, Hayy was born from clay that fermented ‘like bubbles over boiling water for a couple of years and had the requirements necessary to create a man.

Just like human labor, the embryo became full, the protective membranes wore off, and the
clay began to crack. These notions that life forms originated from water and humans from
clay are very much present in the Bible, the Quran, as well as in modern science. Thus, ibn
Tufayl’s theory corresponds with the hypotheses of modern science, that life forms are auto-generated from inorganic compounds over a long period. This perspective stands in complete contrast with the views of religious fundamentalists who believe that life formed
spontaneously in a geological time frame. For Hawi, ibn Tufayl’s writing mirrors modern scientific procedure while also capturing true scientific understanding. Much like scientists such as Darwin, Haldane, and Keosian, he understands the importance of light and heat in aiding the preliminary chemical process. His work addresses the premise that knowledge must be gained by observation, experimentation, and contemplation. In one instance, the way Hayy dissects animal cadavers to figure out the fundamental principle of life shows that ibn Tufayl had an understanding of anatomical dissection as well.
For particular reasons, Hawi hesitates to call this Muslim scholar an evolutionist entirely,
though his works highlight some evolutionary perspectives. To give examples, the Darwinian idea of adapting to one’s surroundings and struggling for existence by fighting for one’s food and protection is found in Hayy’s characterization. Initially, Hayy was unable to catch or defend himself against wild animals who had sharp features like horns or claws. Eventually, he overcame these shortcomings by making his very own spears, shields, and other such weapons or tools. Therefore, ibn Tufayl’s theory reflects the views of modern evolutionary biologists.

Nidhami Arudi and the Faculties of the Three Kingdoms

A 12th-century Persian poet & philosopher from Samarqand, Nidhami Arudi wrote the book
called ‘Chahar Maqala’ (or ‘Four Discourses’ as translated by E. G. Browne) where he dealt
with the natural sciences, philosophy as well as politics. Arudi talks about how vegetation
came into being through the fertilization of the space between water and air. These plants
were born with ‘four subsequent forces’ or what Arudi calls the organismal function.
Additionally, it had ‘three faculties’ that involved nutrition, i.e. acquiring and distributing
nutrients to all parts of a plant, and reproduction, i.e. the ability for the species to survive if
the parent plant is impaired or dies. Through these processes, organisms could maintain
balance on this planet. What is interesting is that similarities can be found between the theories of Arudi and the Ikhwan Al-Safa. Arudi also talked about the role of God in creating three ‘kingdoms’ which are ‘successively and continuously connected. Here, animals ranked higher than plants & vegetables, which were preceded by minerals. The most evolved form of the mineral was coral, which laid the foundation for the primary stage in plant life, which is the thorn. Slowly, plants achieved their highest stage in date palm trees, which required male fertilization to bear fruits. This led to the birth of the animal kingdom. Animals got two additional faculties, namely the ‘Perspective Faculty’ of the five senses, and the ‘Motor Faculty’ for voluntary mobility. According to Arudi’s hypothesis of organic evolution, all the species have a common ancestor instead of originating from each other. Arudi further classified animals into two groups – those with all faculties and those lacking some such as ants, snakes, maggots, and worms. As an intermediate between the animal and human worlds, he identified the creature satyr (‘nasnas’) that is understood as apes in old literature. Like the Darwinian theory of evolution, Arudi’s concept also suggests a connection between apes and humans. For him, having intelligence meant that humans are the most powerful species since they can appropriate all the other kingdoms, e.g. transforming minerals into jewelry, metals into weapons, plants into food, animals into labor, and so on. Tusi’s theory of the Spiritual & Material Perfection of Mankind
The 13th century Persian Muslim thinker who came 600 years prior to Darwin is Nasir ad-Din Tusi (1201–1274), whose evolutionary concepts can be found in his work ‘Akhlag Nasiri’
(i.e. Nasirean Ethics). In his writings, he talks about his faith in the material-spiritual
perfection of man and repeatedly uses the word ‘takamul’, which means ‘perfection’ or
‘evolution’. Tusi was a follower of the ideas of Muslim scholars like Al-Beruni and Ibn
Tufayl, who in turn worked on the evolutionary theories of Greek scholars like Aristotle and
Empedocles. He predicted theories that were later conceptualized by Lamarck and Darwin.
As F. Alakbarli contends, Tusi’s philosophical approach went from theory to facts, not
directly addressing evolution in exact scientific terms such as natural selection. Therefore, The western world of science ignores his contributions as being religious instead of scientific. Much like Darwin, Tusi talked about hereditary variability and the effect of the environment in causing changes in organisms. For him, the more variable organisms can develop new characteristics faster, which helps them to survive and defend themselves on a day-to-day basis. Like his precursors, Tusi refers to a natural hierarchy between the ‘kingdoms’ of plants, animals, and humans. Animals, according to him, have more complex qualities than plants, such as the ability of conscious motion, seeking out food, using reason to learn and acquire new abilities, etc. The transition to human perfection starts from the most evolved animals like trained horses or hinting falcons. While there are aspects like intellect that differentiate humans from animals and plants, there are also certain habits or behaviors that connect this biological-social being to the ‘lower beings’. He can only advance to the next phase of development if he uses his willpower.

Ibn Khaldun and the theories of Human Evolution

In his book ‘Al-Muqaddimah’ (‘Prolegomena’ in the West), the 14th
century North African historian and polymath Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) highlighted human evolutionary concepts that echo the modern theories. Similar to Audi, the Ikhwan Al-Safa, and others, ibn Khaldun addressed the different stages of evolution, from the end stage of minerals to the beginning stage of herbs and seedless plants, from the advanced palms and vines to the first stage of the animals like snails and shellfish who can touch. Plants lack the finesse and force that animals possess. So between minerals, plants, and animals, it is the last one that is the finest organism among the three, and it cannot evolve any further than it already is. The first stage of animals eventually grows into more species until the intellectual and reflective man emerges from the world of clever and perceptive monkeys. Many Muslims and Christian creationists reject the belief that humans have an ape/monkey ancestry. However, among all the eight Muslim scholars discussed till now, ibn Khaldun is the one who unequivocally stated this idea. Moreover, he believed that life forms are evolutionary products of ancestral species that have transmuted over time, rather than being produced independently. Regarding the difference between dark and light human skin tones, ibn Khaldun found a correlation between hotter climates and darker skin pigments (like those of the Sudanese), much like Al-Jahiz did. He disproved the Talmudic and Christian concept that dark African complexion is a punishment meted out to immoral people. He also talked about the fact that hereditary changes are a result of ‘God’s ways, where physical conditions and the environment are not fixed in a particular state, rather they change with time affecting future generations.

What did we learn from studying the Eight Muslim Evolutionists?
Upon studying the works of the eight pre-Darwinian Muslim scholars, Malik et al. arrived at
certain conclusions:
1. Evolutionary theories have been proposed during the Islamic Golden Age, dated from
the 8th to the 14th centuries, long before Charles Darwin came into the picture. While
most Muslims and Christian creationists reject the notion of evolution, these Muslim
scholars have theorized the idea of phenotypic human evolution, with some writing
about humans originating from an ape/monkey ancestry.
2. According to six thinkers, there are hierarchical ‘kingdoms’ of minerals, plants,
animals, and humans in nature, where each kingdom takes advantage of the one
before it. Though this concept came from Aristotle’s scalae nature, there is a crucial
difference. Religious authorities considered scalae nature to be atemporal, but the
Muslim scholars’ evolutionary theories are temporal with separate times of origin.
3. Darwin and other contemporary evolutionists do not believe in God having any
participation in biological evolution. Muslim evolutionists focused on the divine will
of God in causing evolutionary changes. This is similar to the ‘intelligent design’
the concept which acknowledges that organisms evolve due to the plans of a particular
4. Both in the West and the Islamic worlds, Muslim contributions in the field of
evolutionary biology have gone widely unacknowledged. This may be because of
Western prejudices, Eurocentrism, as well as the antagonism between Islamic
doctrines and evolutionary theories (which happened to spread since the early 20th
century). But it is argued that modern Western science, even Darwin, was influenced
by these pre-Darwinian Muslim evolutionists.

Ms. Syeda Bhumika Mahmud
Program Associate
Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD)


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