I met someone like this at a recent conference called “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?” organised by the Deen Institute, an organisation that claims to want to “articulate faith, not in spite of, but through scientific inquiry, critical thinking and logical reasoning, reviving intellectuality among modern Muslims.” This young man, a postgraduate biochemist at Imperial College London, told me that he had come to the conference in the hope that he would find a way to reconcile his belief in the teachings of Islam with what he described as “evidence for evolution in everything I do at work”.
He seemed deeply anguished by the fact that evolution by natural selection contradicts the core belief with which he was brought up – that the Qur’an is the literal word of Allah. When I asked him if he might consider the idea that the Qur’an wasn’t a divine document he told me that this was “impossible” for him, that his “life would have no meaning” if the Qur’an was not literally true.
His struggle is not unique. According to writer and journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who chaired the conference, many Muslim science students experience “inner turmoil” as a result of studying evolution. She and some of the other speakers at the conference told of “heart-wrenching” emails they had received from students who had lost, or were in danger of losing, their belief in Islam because they could not reconcile what they believed the Qur’an says with what they learned in their science lessons.
As a teacher, I see students of all faiths confront this sort of dilemma, particularly when teaching about the Big Bang theory. Like the theory of evolution taught in biology lessons, the Big Bang theory is one that challenges what young people from religious backgrounds believe about the origin of the universe. Creation stories are amongst the first we hear as children and, unlike other stories, parents often present the creation stories of their particular religion as the literal truth, an idea that can stick well into adulthood.