Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Acting on a tip from explorer of caves four years ago, scientists in South Africa discovered what the cavers had only dimly glimpsed through a crack in a limestone wall deep in the Rising Star Cave: lots and lots of old bones.
The remains covered the earthen floor beyond the narrow opening. This was, the scientists concluded, a large, dark chamber for the dead of a previously unidentified species of the early human lineage — Homo naledi.
New York Times reported in September 2015, the new hominin species was announced in by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.
In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.
Francis Thackeray, of the University of the Witwatersrand, suggests that H. naledi lived about 2 million years ago (±0.5 million years), based on the skulls’ similarities to H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, and H. habilis, species that existed around 1.5, 2.5, and 1.8 million years ago, respectively.
Modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago. We have slender skeletons, hands well-suited to tool-making, and large brains. We’ve lost the curved fingers, deep brow ridges and sloping foreheads of our ancestors. We are taller but less powerful.
And Homo naledi shares characteristics with all of those groups.
In the very first part of the holy Quran, in the second chapter, there is a detailed description of the creation of Adam:
Allah it is Who created for you all that is in the earth; then He turned towards the heavens, and He perfected them as seven heavens; and He knows all things.
And when thy Lord said to the angels: ‘I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth,’ they said: ‘Wilt Thou place therein such as will cause disorder in it, and shed blood? — and we glorify Thee with Thy praise and extol Thy holiness.’ He answered: ‘I know what you know not.’
And He taught Adam all the names, then He put the objects of these names before the angels and said: ‘Tell Me the names of these, if you are right.’
They said: ‘Holy art Thou! No knowledge have we except what Thou hast taught us; surely, Thou art the All-Knowing, the Wise.’
He said: ‘O Adam, tell them their names;’ and when he had told them their names, He said: ‘Did I not say to you, I know the secrets of the heavens and of the earth, and I know what you reveal and what you conceal?’
And remember the time when We said to the angels: ‘Submit to Adam,’ and they all submitted. But Iblis did not. He refused and was too proud; and he was of the disbelievers.
And We said: ‘O Adam, dwell thou and thy wife in the garden, and eat therefrom plentifully wherever you will, but approach not this tree, lest you be of the wrongdoers.’
But Satan caused them both to slip by means of it and drove them out of the state in which they were. And We said: ‘Go forth; some of you are enemies of others, and for you there is an abode in the earth and a provision for a time.
Then Adam learnt from his Lord certain words of prayer. So He turned towards him with mercy. Surely, He is Oft-Returning with compassion, and is Merciful.
We said: ‘Go forth, all of you, from here. And if there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoso shall follow My guidance, on them shall come no fear, nor shall they grieve.’ (Al Quran 2:230-239/229-238)
Most if not all the present day commentaries of all denominations among the Muslims that I have seen, present these verses literally and even if they subtly recognize evolution, the commentaries do not address the natural ramifications of the Darwinian evolution and how they affect the understanding of the Quranic text.
Now, if we take these verses literally as majority of the Muslims do, and if we believe in the Darwinian evolution and recent account of the human like and human species, we cannot reconcile the Quranic and the scientific accounts.
According to conventional understanding of the Bible and the Quran the prophet Adam existed some 6000 years ago. If prophet Adam is taken as the first human being, by the fundamentalist believers, it clearly puts the religion at odds with the scientific account of how life evolved on our planet earth.
The story of Adam is mentioned again in Sura Aaraf and here there seems to be a subtle hint towards evolution, if you have a keen eye:
And We have established you in the earth and provided for you therein the means of subsistence. How little thanks you give! And We did create you and then We gave you shape; then said We to the angels, ‘Submit to Adam;’ and they all submitted but Iblis did not; he would not be of those who submit. (Al Quran 7:10-11/11-12)
The verses say that God first created humans as if in some earlier form, like the first life forms and then gave them shape, for example initially a mammalian shape and then an ape like shape.
There is another account of all the children of Adam in the same Sura, how Allah took a Covenant from all of them:
And when thy Lord brought forth offspring from the loins of the sons of Adam, He made them witnesses against their own selves by asking them: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said, ‘Yea, we do bear witness to that.’ This He does lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were surely unaware of this.’ (Al Quran 7:172/173)
This verse, most enlightened believers believe, refers to an imprint of God consciousness in human psyche rather than any literal assembly of humans addressed by God.
It is easy for most of the believers to take this verse metaphorically as that is how they have learnt and read it over the years.
Likewise, I am suggesting that all the verses about creation of Adam, his mistake or ‘original sin’ as the the Christians call it, with mother Eve, his expulsion from paradise, his repentance and his learning of language, are to be taken metaphorically, otherwise countless contradictions open up and the holy Quran by its own declaration is a book, a revelation from the All Knowing God, which is clearly immune from any contradiction. (Al Quran 4:82/83)
We have no choice but to understand the evolution of human body, human languages, human consciousness and human conscience in biological light and interpret the Quran and the Bible in that light, otherwise a Pandora box of confusion opens up.
Adam, may peace be on him, who lived some six thousand years ago was the first prophet but was clearly not the first man. As we noted above the modern humans have existed for more than 200,000 years and human language began to evolve much before 6000 years ago. The term ‘first human being,’ is an oxymoron. The first human being does not exist, if we begin to understand how species split from the parent species and new species develop ever so gradually over millions of years, we can conceptualize this reality.
If we go back to the verse from the second sura of the Quran, quoted earlier: “And He taught Adam all the names, then He put the objects of these names before the angels and said: ‘Tell Me the names of these, if you are right.’” This may refer to an earlier Adam as the language was being given or evolving in earlier hominid species.
Searching for ‘Adam’ in any Quranic translation will give us all the instances that Adam is mentioned in the holy Quran. If it refers to the first prophet, it can be taken literally in the sense of him receiving revelation from Allah, for example:
Allah did choose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of ‘Imran above all peoples. (Al Quran 3:33/34)
There is no reason to doubt that the first prophet Adam existed around 6000 years ago, but he was not the first man or the first person to speak a language.
There are several verses of the holy Quran with subtle reference to language and biological evolution and evolution in general, but those are for another day.
Suggested Reading about evolution
Suggested Reading about the Quran