Islam, being the youngest of the three Abrahamic religions, has had the least amount of time to evolve, or “regenerate” as Martin Lings, the English writer and biographer of the Prophet Mohammed, once put it. And it’s strikingly evident: while Christianity has accepted, and welcomed debate around, homosexuality and Darwin’s evolution theory, it pales besides the resistance of change within Islam. However, for the first time in Islam’s 1400-year history, these issues are finally being openly discussed, and rightly so.
In January 2013, a groundbreaking event will be taking place in Central London: the first open-debate about Islam and evolution, entitled ‘Have Muslims misunderstood evolution’? What’s more, the event has been organised by the British-based organization The Deen Institute, which was founded earlier this year. The institute sets out to “revive intellectuality within the Muslim community”, bridge the gap between “Islam and Western civilization” and respond to the ubiquity of militant atheists.
Usama Hasan, a London-based Islamic scholar and scientist, who received death threats in 2011 when he said Islam was compatible with evolution, will be at the debate, along with: Dr Oktar Babuna, a leading Turkish creationist; Fatima Jackson, an African-American biologist and Yasir Qadhi, an American-based Islamic scholar.
However, things are never straight forward. The debate has come under fire by many Muslims opposing the event, many of whom are literal creationists. The event had to be re-located from Imperial College, London to a conference centre owned by the University of London. The opposition against the event is symptomatic of the way many Muslims across the world, in particular those who follow the neo-Salafi tradition, feel that they should not question the status-quo.
According to Hasan, it’s not until recently that Muslims have had a problem with evolution. It happened, Hasan says, when Islam began to be dominated by literalism in latter part of the 20th century. He puts some of the blame on Harun Yahya, a Turkish Islamic creationist, for his “Christian fundamentalist ideas”, which have been disseminated throughout the Muslim world.
If dealing with evolution wasn’t enough, Islam now has to handle the sensitive yet inescapable issue of homosexuality. (Yes, it has been a long time coming). Muslim LGBT groups are popping up across the globe, from Arab countries to the U.S. and U.K – and many are asking for change within the religion. One of those seeking change is the gay, Muslim, Scott Kugle (who you can read more about here). It was also announced last month that a gay-friendly mosque was opening in Paris, France.
But what are the reasons for such change and development within Islam? There are, of course, a plethora of reasons. Modernity and secularism have brought such issues to the surface; rapid scientific advancements, especially in the field of biology and evolution; the decline in religion and the upsurge in atheism, including the popularity of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al; social media, with its widespread transmission of all sorts of information and, possibly, the overthrow of western colonies in the 20th century Arab world.
If Muslims want general perceptions of them and their religion changed, they must encourage dialogue and debate, not reject it. The Quran repeatedly encourages critical thinking and rumination. Therefore shunning debate around some of the most pertinent and controversial issues of our time is akin to rejecting a key Quranic message. However, to say Islam is the only religion resistant to change is prejudicial. The Church of England, too, has its fair share of problems: most recently, of course, the vote against female clergy becoming bishops and its opposition to gay marriage.
It is in the interests of all Muslims to have these debates. Extremism and violence, which some Muslims exhibit towards those of other belief-systems, often manifests from ignorance. If debates around evolution and homosexuality can’t produce the answers those on opposing sides want, they will at least prompt questioning of what it is to be a Muslim and, most importantly, encourage tolerance and inclusivity.