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Nineteenth-Century Islamic First Causal Reasoning with Darwin


In the late nineteenth century, Islamic intellectuals began engaging with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The three prominent Muslim scholars Husayn al-Jisr, Muhammad Abduh, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani each engaged with the Theory of Evolution via a first causal framework similar to Neothomism. This paper argues that these three men engaged with Darwin via their chosen line of reasoning because it allowed each individual thinker to accept or reject the theory within an Islamic intellectual and social framework. In turn, this gave each man a way to justify that Islam was not a "backward" belief system despite the increasing European influence in Muslim lands.


Throughout the nineteenth century, Europe's rise to power and her colonial conquests created a crisis of confidence within the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East and India. Muslims began to reckon with a besieged Ottoman Empire and European subjugation of swaths of Islamic lands. Within this milieu of cultural exchange in the late 1800s, awareness of Darwin's Theory of Evolution arose throughout the Islamic world via secondhand accounts. Within this context, three prominent Muslim intellectuals Husayn al-Jisr, Muhammad Abduh, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, wrote arguments regarding Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

Each man embraced arguments analogous to the Catholic tradition of Neothomism, also known as Neoscholasticism. Neothomism came into the theological playing field in the early nineteenth century and gained speed starting in the 1870s via institutional support during the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903).[1] Neothomism inherited from scholasticism the aim of showing "the inherent rationality of Christian theology by an appeal to philosophy and the demonstration of the complete harmony of that theology."[2] The aforementioned Islamic thinkers' arguments also focused on the theological harmony of Islam, but specifically with the Theory of Evolution and modern science. In part, the similarities between Neothomism and the arguments of these Islamic intellectuals in the nineteenth century derived from their mutual ancestor in Aristotelian first causal reasoning, but this genealogical relationship by itself does not provide an adequate explanation.

This is not to argue that Husayn al-Jisr, Muhammad Abduh, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani intentionally drew upon the Neothomist tradition, though Christian theological ideas such as the watchmaker analogy justifying the existence of God did transfer between the two religious traditions. The analogy presupposes that the intricate works of nature could not have developed randomly. This implies that a creator, God, designed everything in the universe akin to how a watchmaker puts together the pieces of a watch. However, as a historian of science, Marwa Elshakry writes, "one of the ironies of the introduction of Darwin into Arabic is that it led so many to embrace the ideas of [the Christian theologian William] Paley [who promulgated the watchmaker analogy]… sooner than, or alongside those of the biologist himself."[3] The similarities between Neothomism and the three aforementioned Muslim intellectuals begs the question of why these men found Neothomist lines of reasoning amenable during their historical circumstances.

I argue that these three intellectuals embraced arguments regarding Darwin's Theory of Evolution similar to Neothomism because such lines of reasoning allowed each individual thinker to accept or reject the theory within an Islamic intellectual and social framework. In turn, this gave each man a way to justify that Islam was not a "backward" belief system despite the increasing European influence in Muslim lands. The geopolitical and intellectual debates occurring in Muslim society may not be cleanly separated from one another. In practice, the two frequently overlapped.

Engaging with Darwin

Husayn al-Jisr lived most of his adult life in the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdul Hamid II. After graduating from Al-Azhar, he taught for several years in the 1880s and became immersed within "contemporary scientific debates"[4] while in Beirut. From this experience onwards, al-Jisr began to argue that science should be taught within an Islamic framework. The former, which he amalgamated with Western learning, became dangerous when scientific knowledge lost its roots in Islamic pedagogy.[5] As part of his efforts to justify science as compatible with Islam, he published The Hamidian Treatise in 1888 with a dedication to Sultan Abdul Hamid II, from whom al-Jisr received a prize for the work in 1891.[6] Al-Jisr's treatise dedication demonstrated his loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and his desire to work within the existing geopolitical structure of the Ottoman Empire to achieve the teaching of science within an Islamic framework.

In The Hamidian Treatise, he embarked on an argument similar to Neothomism for the existence of God:

"Some who have ventured into these [natural] sciences and investigated the studied effects have started to search for their cause without precision and true immersion. They didn't have the belief in the true Revelation (al-shar') to awaken their thoughts and guide them to the real origin, so that they [only] arrived at apparent causes like matter and its laws. They also believe that the movement of atoms, in the existence of which they trust, is the true cause of actions."[7]

Al-Jisr's dismissal of atheistic thought, the absence of the "true Revelation," demonstrated his view in favor of the first cause argument for God’s existence. In essence, the argument proceeds by establishing that an action must occur for a subsequent one to take place. Following this chain of reasoning, one concludes that there must be a first cause, which al-Jisr, and the Neothomists, argue is God. He continued his first cause critique of atheistic materialists by declaring that they do not ask "whether matter can be a real cause without coming forth from something else, or if [on the contrary] it must derive from something else because it has necessarily been brought about in time."[8] Al-Jisr argued that Islamic faith could be justified via rational philosophical inquiry into the reasoning behind the existence of God. This showed his desire to demonstrate Islam's compatibility with modern science and refute arguments that declared the religion backward due to its inability to incorporate this element.

In his quest to harmonize Islam with modern science, al-Jisr did not go so far as to declare miracles incompatible with the Muslim faith. He accepted the tension between a belief in miracles and an inherently rational Islam. Considering his father's reputation as a miracle worker,[9] al-Jisr's reluctance to rebuke miracles is not surprising.

Besides accepting the existence of miracles, al-Jisr used first causal reasoning as a tool to reject an atheistic understanding of the Theory of Evolution. He argued that even if evolution "is proven, they [Muslims] would say that it [evolution] is [part of] God's creation, due to the evidence they have that He is the sole creator and agent. The laws that accompany [creation], what are they but ordinary causes that have no power? Yet you imagine evolution to be caused by those laws."[10] Al-Jisr attacks atheistic interpretations of the Theory of Evolution as based on laws such as natural selection that themselves must come from a source. In turn, al-Jisr concludes this source to be God. Thus, he rejects an atheistic understanding of evolution to argue that even if evolution exists, it is due to God and not natural laws. For al-Jisr, the critical point is that the Theory of Evolution does not demonstrate where life and natural laws originate. In his view, similar to Neothomism, only Islam adequately explains the phenomenon of life via first causal reasoning. While al-Jisr rejects an atheistic understanding of evolution, he leaves the door open for a theistic formulation of evolution that did not center around Darwin's principle of natural selection.

Within an Islamic first causal framework, al-Jisr presents the following argument against the Theory of Evolution. He followed in the footsteps of Christian theologians who cited human body parts, like the eye, as a means to demonstrate that God must exist since such complex phenomena could not have developed randomly.[11] If one accepts this line of reasoning against the Theory of Evolution, it is still plausible to accept evolution and believe that animal species evolved according to God's omnipotence, not the natural selection mechanism proposed by Darwin. Al-Jisr acknowledged this view but argued, as historian Marwa Elshakry writes, that God "had simply chosen to terminate the life of one species and create another… The progression of species was thus still about the perfection of species for al-Jisr."[12]

Al-Jisr employed first causal reasoning to provide a means to rationalize God's existence while engaging with Darwin's Theory of Evolution. He emphasized the inherent rationality of Islam, which demonstrated it was not a backward religion incompatible with scientific inquiry. However, al-Jisr still believed in the possibility of miracles and accepted this tension with his arguments for rational Islamic faith. A fellow scholar named Muhammad Abduh would take matters a step further than al-Jisr regarding Islam's relationship to science.

Muhammad Abduh lived during the second half of the nineteenth century in Egypt, where he encountered the spread of Christian missionary schools. As a teacher, he concurred with other ulama who saw these schools’ opening as a direct threat since they did not produce faithful Muslims and attracted students away from Islamic schools. Furthermore, the students who attended these Christian missionary schools did not receive formal education regarding the principles and duties of a faithful Muslim.[13]

This pattern led to his view that it was necessary to incorporate scientific subjects taught in missionary schools into an Islamic educational framework. Like many Muslim educational reformers during this period, "Abduh upheld that true science could never contradict true religion; yet unlike many, he insisted simultaneously on the rationalist position that true faith could not contravene the laws of logic."[14] However, he still accepted miracles and believed that the "entire truth about them [the prophets] is that they are … honored servants and that everything that He [God] makes happen through their hands needs special authorization and enablement, following a special end, according to a special wisdom."[15] While al-Jisr accepted a tension-filled relationship with miracles, Abduh sought to rationalize how miracles could occur and break the laws of nature. Abduh understood that God gave His prophets their power and, in this statement, implicitly accepted first causal reasoning. Tracing back the origin of power according to Abduh's statement, one finds God because He is definitionally omnipotent and eternal in the Islamic faith. Nothing could have logically created God because then He would not be omnipotent. Thus, an eternal God must have been the first cause of everything in the universe.

Abduh engaged in this project of justifying the existence of miracles, unlike al-Jisr, who accepted their existence and subsequent tension with a rationalist understanding of his faith, to demonstrate that Islam was not a backward belief system, but the preeminent one. He characterized religion as a progression and argued that Judaism was the religion at the first rung of progress that paved the way for emotionally oriented Christianity. Thus, Islam's arrival in Abduh's view marked "when man reached maturity … [because it] spoke to reason, appealed to intelligence and understanding, connecting them to emotions and sensations, in order to lead man to happiness in this world and in the Hereafter."[16] Abduh's connection of reason to religious maturity demonstrated his argument behind why science was inherently compatible with Islam. In Abduh's view, this special compatibility ensured the best method to discern the truth and drive civilization forward.[17]

Abduh's engagement with first causal reasoning similar to Neothomism set a basis for his argument that rationality defines a faith's position on the line of religious maturity and progress. In turn, this allowed him to argue that Islam's compatibility with science, implicitly including Darwin's Theory of Evolution, made it a superior belief system. This belief in Islamic exceptionalism as it related to scientific inquiry pushed Abduh's arguments one step further than al-Jisr. Similar in thought to Muhammad Abduh, we now turn to an analysis of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.

Compared to Abduh and al-Jisr, al-Afghani led an itinerant lifestyle that took him throughout the Middle East and British India. Despite his name, al-Afghani grew up in Iran and only traveled once to Afghanistan in the late 1860s.[18] In his late teens, al-Afghani traveled to British India, where he became a harsh critic of colonial rule over Muslims.[19] The rest of his life took him throughout the Middle East to places such as Egypt and Istanbul, as well as Paris.

While residing in India during 1881, he published, in Persian, The Refutation of the Materialists that argued against Darwin's Theory of Evolution and strongly critiqued "Westernizers like Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khān and his followers, since they were the primary advocates of Muslim cooperation with British rule in India."[20] The materialists whom al-Afghani rebukes in The Refutation of the Materialists refer to both Sayyid Khan and Darwinists. This amalgamation by al-Afghani inaccurately leads to a portrayal of Khan that obfuscates the latter's commitment to Islam. Far from being the atheistic materialist as portrayed by al-Afghani, Khan remained a faithful Muslim dedicated to reconciling science and Islam. In one instance, Khan changed his mind to believe that the Earth rotated around the Sun and argued for a reinterpretation of Quranic scripture to reconcile this scientific discovery.[21] Al-Afghani's hostility to Sayyid Khan may be attributed as much to the latter's compromising view with Europeans compared to the former's pan-Islamic political vision, rather than Khan's lack of piety. However, al-Afghani still perceived Khan to be egregiously impious.

Understanding al-Afghani's amalgamation of the term materialist paves the way for analyzing his relationship to the Theory of Evolution. In al-Afghani's eyes, as historian Marwa Elshakry writes, "neither Darwin nor these modern materialists were terribly novel. Al-Afghani regarded them as an extension of the ancient Greeks and hence felt that they posed the same kind of challenge to religious truth as had faced the classical Arabic philosophers who had undertaken the project of harmonizing Greek science with Muslim theology."[22] These Arabic philosophers did not harmonize the materialistic aspects of ancient Greek thought but rather synthesized elements from thinkers like Aristotle into Islamic theology. Thus, Afghani argued that Islam overcame such materialists in the past and could do so again with Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

To contribute towards this effort, al-Afghani gave his readers a brief history lesson: "It is the first cause and prime mover, the creator of all beings, whether material or immaterial. This group became known as the theists … meaning those who worshipped God ... The other group believed that nothing exists except matière meaning matter and material objects that are perceived by one of the five senses."[23] As a devout Muslim, al-Afghani followed a long intellectual tradition, similar to Neothomism, reaching back to the incorporation of Greek thought into Islamic theology, of first causal reasoning to justify his belief in God. The embrace of this argument allows al-Afghani to refute Darwin on the former's theological playing field. Instead of approaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in a scientific arena that pays no regard, in this case, to how the existing matter came into existence, al-Afghani intertwines Muslim theological justification for the existence of God in order to demonstrate Islam's compatibility with modern science. Precisely by rejecting Darwin as a materialist, al-Afghani showed that Islam could refute atheistic scientific theories while accepting scientific inquiry as a legitimate form of knowledge to understand and debate. However, al-Afghani's interpretation of Darwin led the latter's later translator to question if he ever read Darwin's work firsthand.[24] While impossible to definitively state that al-Afghani did not read Darwin directly, it remains highly improbable that he ever laid eyes on the latter's translated work firsthand.

Though the Theory of Evolution challenged his Islamic faith and Europeans expanded colonial empires during his lifetime, al-Afghani did not believe the West to be flourishing. As evidence, al-Afghani argued that the return of the materialists like Voltaire and Rousseau, who both attacked organized religion, led to the French Revolution and eventual ruin of France as seen via her defeat by Prussia.[25] Which defeat al-Afghani referred to was not directly stated; however, considering he wrote The Refutation of the Materialists in 1880-1881, roughly a decade after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, this may be the referenced event.

Al-Afghani concluded that "the West itself had flourished only when its beliefs were consistent with Muslim precepts: drawing on [the famed nineteenth-century historian] Fraçois Guizot to stress the importance of the Reformation for the success of European civilization. Afghani claimed that Martin Luther, for instance, was merely 'following the example of the Muslims.'"[26] Far from being a backward belief system, al-Afghani argued that Islam was superior to Christianity since the former "sets up proofs for each fundamental belief in such a way that it will be useful to all people." [27] Christianity, in his view, remains inferior because it mandates a belief in the Trinity, the belief of three persons in one God, that nobody may rationally understand.

Al-Afghani embraced first causal reasoning to justify his understanding of religious hierarchy, with Islam being at the top. However, one may not escape the tension within al-Afghani's argument regarding Luther following the example of Muslims, even if it were accurate. Luther's catalyzation of the Reformation led in part to the Wars of Religion, which devastated Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. How this devastation followed the examples of Muslims was a subject on which al-Afghani remained silent.

Nevertheless, al-Afghani embraced first causal reasoning as a way to refute Darwin within an Islamic framework. In turn, this allowed for al-Afghani to reject the Theory of Evolution, not via an alternative scientific theory, but theological reasoning and an appeal to the refutation of earlier Greek materialists. This intellectual structure paved the way for al-Afghani to demonstrate Islam as a religion for the contemporary era, not a backward belief system.


Husayn al-Jisr, Muhammad Abduh, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani engaged with Darwin's Theory of Evolution via first causal reasoning similar to Neothomism. This does not suggest that they knowingly drew upon this tradition but instead emphasizes the common Greek roots in Islamic and Christian theology. They each chose arguments similar in reasoning to Neothomism because it allowed them to engage with the Theory of Evolution within a rationalistic Islamic framework. However, each man differed in how far he was willing to take a rationalistic train of thought.

Their respective decisions to refute or accept Darwin's theory show that Islam was not a backward belief system. The three men engaged with the Theory of Evolution by explaining how Islam answered the challenges it posed to the faith. The geopolitical rise of European power across the globe and the besieged Ottoman Empire helped influence the arguments these men put forth. However, their arguments ultimately engaged in thought similar to Neothomism because it allowed them to wield their faith as a framework for discussing the Theory of Evolution and defend Islam from the argument that it was a backward belief system not suitable for the nineteenth century in which Husayn al-Jisr, Muhammad Abduh, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani all lived.

References [1] Bernard McGinn, Thomas Aquinas's 'Summa Theologiae': A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 163-167. [2] Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993), 69. [3] Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 141. [4] Ibid., 137. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Bentlage Björn et al., eds., Religious Dynamics under the Impact of Imperialism and Colonialism: A Sourcebook (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2017), 155. [8] Björn et al., eds., Religious Dynamics, 133. [9] Elshakry, Reading Darwin, 133, 138. [10] Björn et al., eds., Religious Dynamics, 138. [11] Elshakry, Reading Darwin, 149-150. [12] Ibid., 154. [13] Ibid., 135. [14] Ibid., 172. [15] Björn et al., eds., Religious Dynamics, 152. [16] Ibid. 157. [17] Elshakry, Reading Darwin, 165-166. [18] Nikki R. Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamāl Ad-Dīn "Al-Afghānī" (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983), 6-7. [19] Ibid., 11. [20] Ibid., 23. [21] Bernard Lightman, Rethinking History, Science, and Religion. An Exploration of Conflict and the Complexity Principle (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2019), 54-58. [22] Elshakry, Reading Darwin, 122. [23] Keddie, The Refutation, 23. [24] Elshakry, Reading Darwin, 122. [25] Keddie, The Refutation, 159. [26] Elshakry, Reading Darwin, 122-123. [27] Keddie, The Refutation, 172.

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