The Muslim world stands at a unique moment in its relation to evolutionary theory, according to the co-author of a major survey into attitudes towards evolution among Muslims around the world.
Acceptance of evolution varies widely across the Islamic world, demonstrating that stereotypical ideas about Islam and evolution are wrong, said Salman Hameed, director of the Centre for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College, United Sates.
But ideas are being moulded now, he said, because of new phenomena such as mass education, migration and access to the Internet.
"This is a unique moment," Hameed told the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists (27–29 June) in Qatar this week. He presented initial results from a survey that examines the attempts of educated Muslims to reconcile their religion with the evolutionary science.
The survey is being conducted among doctors and medical students in five Muslim countries — Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey — and also in three countries hosting Muslim diaspora — Turkish doctors in Germany; Pakistani doctors in the United Kingdom; and Arab, Pakistani and Turkish doctors in the United States.
Hameed told SciDev.Net they picked doctors as they would be scientifically literate and share similar educational and social backgrounds. The questions included whether the respondents accepted or rejected the general theory of evolution and, more specifically, whether microbial, animal and human forms of evolution are possible.
He presented the results of just two groups — Pakistanis in the United States and Malaysians in their home country.
More than 80 per cent of Pakistani doctors in the United States accepted the theory of evolution, including microbial, animal and human evolution.
The majority also believed that one could accept the theory of evolution and hold religious beliefs at the same time.
But most Malaysian doctors (in Malaysia) rejected the theory of evolution, especially with regard to humans.
So while Hameed is believes that the basic principles of evolution will eventually become accepted, he said that Muslim countries are still "negotiating modernity" and many replies demonstrated the resulting confusion.
For example, a Turkish doctor said: "It is complicated … I accept evolution scientifically, but reject it religiously". And a Pakistani medical student said: "I accept it when I am in a hospital and reject it when I go home".
Young earth creationism, which holds that Earth was created around 6,000 years ago literally as described in the Bible, and is held by some, mainly US Christian groups, who reject evolution, was absent, demonstrating that media coverage of evolutionary debate needed to be more nuanced.
"Muslim contexts are different from the battles in the United States," Hameed warned. Presenting Muslim attitudes as a controversy was premature and could be damaging, as the "dominant narrative is yet to emerge in the Muslim world", where religion plays an important role in forming people's worldviews.
"If evolution gets conflated with atheism, then a vast rejection, even of the basic principles, is quite possible," he said. Human evolution, though, will likely continue to be a controversial subject — and perhaps be rejected by the majority of Muslims.