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Human Origins and Evolution—Dr. Nazir Khan

Human Origins and Evolution—Dr. Nazir Khan

 In his article published by Yaqeen Institute on evolution, Human Origins – Part 2: Evolution and the Failures of Naturalism, Dr. Nazir Khan discusses the concept of evolution; and the frequent debate on whether it is compatible or not with religious doctrine. It is difficult to discern when there are very few studies of the philosophy of science and matters of theology. Dr. Khan’s article discusses the scope of Islamic theology with regards to philosophical naturalism, and where it falls for the empirically 

Qur’an 6:38: “There is no animal that walks upon the earth nor a bird that flies with its two wings except that they form communities like you”. 

An understanding of Islamic theology and the philosophy of science removes any presumption of a conflict between empirical knowledge and theological conclusions. This article argues that empirical knowledge about uniquely human capacities can only be properly rationalized according to a metaphysical foundation that grants human uniqueness. The tendency to deny that the human mind differs categorically from the minds of other animals is not without precedent, and is arguably a legacy of British Empiricism. Another tradition in modern philosophy adheres more closely to the Aristotelian position described above. The competition between these viewpoints can be seen historically in the wake of the European enlightenment.

Theories of evolution and Islam have the potential to sway the course of scientific investigation. The more we learn about the distinctive features of human nature, the more we recognize a massive gulf that separates humanity from the rest of biological species on this planet. Failure to acknowledge this gap can lead to an impoverished understanding of human origins and could also constrain and mislead scientific research.

The world of academia is currently in the grip of a strange and worrying epidemic of biologism, which has also captured the popular imagination. Human beings are the only creatures to have developed civilization, government, law, education, culture, language, philosophy, art, entertainment, science, and so forth. And these achievements arise from some uniquely human capacities related to our consciousness. The claim that a single chimpanzee using a stone to crack open a nut is the same kind of thing as a large international team of scientists cooperating to invent and construct the Large Hadron Collider is somewhat less than valid. As neurologist and philosopher Raymond Tallis writes, something rather important about us is left unexplained by evolutionary theory.

The Qur’an mentions, “Verily, We have created the human being in the best of molds”. Ibn Atiyyah (d. 541 H) notes that this verse is inclusive of several unique characteristics ranging from physical form to senses. What follows is an examination of the unique dimensions of human nature, and an exploration of the scriptural and scientific discussions that pertain to them.

Language in Regards to Evolution

One of the most intriguing traits of the human species is the ability to speak. As a divinely granted ability, language is referenced in the Qur’an right after the human being is created: “The Most-Merciful; He taught the Qur’an, created the human being, and taught him language (bayan)” (55:1-4).

An endless number of interpretations can be created by combining a few sounds or written symbols. Human toddlers are able to learn such knowledge naturally with astonishingly little instruction despite the fact that language is a massively complex system of meaning with hundreds of grammatical rules. This observation inspired Noam Chomsky to describe an innate faculty known as the “language acquisition device,” one of his groundbreaking conceptual innovations in the study of language.

Even with extensive study, many of these rules are actually rather complex and challenging to understand, but native speakers can recognize them instantly. Although it is now widely acknowledged that the human mind is better equipped to learn languages than those of all other animals, Ibn al-Qayyim made the case in a classic work that God is the One who “prepared the human mind by making it amenable to learning languages in contrast to all other animals” (man hayya’ dhihnahu li qubul hadha ta’lim duna sa’iri’l-hayawanat). 

Many individuals make the mistake of believing that English is merely a few orders of magnitude superior to animal communication in terms of communication systems. However, language’s primary function is peripheral to its communication component.

The basic role of language is as a system of thought, serving to examine and clarify concepts, develop ideas, elucidate and raise questions, and elaborate meaning. The communicative feature of language is, however, incidental to this primary function. Because linguistic concepts are fundamental to our brain activity, our internal thought process cannot function without language (e.g., try to think a thought without any words). This is the fundamental quality of language, according to the Qur’an, which also makes a distinction between the language faculty as a whole and particular languages. 

The words “bayan” (which means clarification of meaning) and “lisan” (which means tongue) are used throughout the Qur’an to refer to the human linguistic faculty, diverse human languages, and animal communication, respectively (27:16).

Animal screams, roars, croaks, and grunts are radically dissimilar from human language, which allows us to think abstractly about things like the nature of reality or the laws of physics. According to American linguist and philosopher Ray Jackendoff, animals “typically have at most a few dozen distinct calls, and they are used only to communicate immediate issues such as food, danger, threat, or reconciliation.” As a result, animal communication is at best comparable to human gestures and body language. Even attempts to teach monkeys human language through rigorous training and instruction have shown just a moderate ability to pick up basic communicative expressiveness, which is exceeded by a three-year-old.

Animal species can only naturally express a finite number of established messages, whereas humans are able to communicate complex ideas that have never before been communicated in human history. 

The emergence of language is thought to have occurred between 70 000 and 100 000 years ago, but pinpointing the mechanism has proven to be extremely challenging. One method used to explain how language may have suddenly appeared through a single genetic change in a person is to reduce language to just one essential ability, namely recursion (simply words referring back to other words). Terrence Deacon, a biological anthropologist, claims that this invocation of such a lone “fortunate genetic accident” amounts to a justification for miracles.

Humans are able to learn a lot by seeing and studying the natural world since they are gifted with the faculties of reason and sensory awareness. In fact, the Qur’an draws attention to this by writing in Qur’an 16:78, “And Allah has taken you out of the wombs of your mothers, knowing nothing; and He has given you hearing and eyesight and understanding, maybe that you may be thankful.”

The Qur’an emphasizes the value of intellectual inquiry no less than 750 times, underscoring the immense power of human reason (aql) and perception (hiss).

The very combination of perception and reason into a thorough process of empirical research is the foundation of the natural sciences. According to the renowned Muslim scholar Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751 H), “because every legitimate science must have supporting arguments (barahn) that are ultimately grounded in either sense perception (hiss) or the rules of reason (daroorat al-aql).” 

Muslim scholarship bears witness to the complete compatibility between empirical knowledge and scriptural knowledge, rejecting the idea that science and religion are at odds. It has long been believed in error that naturalists possess only the kind of knowledge known as empirical science. However, in this essay, we see how empirical understanding of human nature supports a viewpoint at odds with naturalism and in line with theology. Such a basis is provided through an integrative method of analyzing signs (ayat) found in the Bible and science, which helps us understand more fully who we are and Whom we will return to. More resources on the Islamic dissection of the conception of evolution can be found on Yaqeen Institute platforms. Other articles, like this one on an Islamic platform, cover the topic from different perspectives, but rooted in Islam. 

Dr. Nazir Khan is Yaqeen Canada’s president and the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research’s director of research strategy. He works as an assistant professor and neuroradiologist at McMaster University. He is also an expert in the sciences of the Qur’an and has received certification (ijazah) in all ten readings of the Qur’an via both main and minor transmission methods. He also holds additional certifications (ijazah) in Islamic theology (aqeedah), Hadith, and Qur’anic studies (Ulam al-Qur’an). He was young when he memorized the entire Qur’an, and has experience with being an Imam. In addition to serving as a consultant for the Manitoba Islamic Association Fiqh Committee, he has conducted classes, workshops, and seminars on Islamic theology and Qur’anic studies.



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