Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
For more than 1400 years, since the revelation of the Quran, all the Muslims have interpreted the verse, ‘O mankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female,’ to mean that God created the whole of the human family through Adam and Eve. But, this cannot be true if the theory of evolution is true and I believe many aspects of the theory especially the common ancestry of all life forms on the planet earth, is absolutely true and as true as the physics of Albert Einstein and of all the physicist of the 20th century. The veracity of the physicist has been established a million times and more by all the technological developments of the last few decades and almost every one of us carries them in the form of smart phones in our pockets these days.
The full Quranic verse that I am talking about is:
O mankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Indeed, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware. (Al Quran 49:13/14)
I have tried to review all the popular commentaries of 20th and the 21st century in English and Urdu and none of them interpret this verse in the modern biological light. By the Grace of Allah in this age of information I know enough about the Quran and biology and evolution that I have better understood the meaning of this verse.
No where in the Quran the name of grandmother Eve is mentioned. The fact of the matter is that the only lady mentioned by name in the Quran is mother Mary. If the Quran had claimed that God has created the mankind from Adam and Eve, who existed some 6000 years ago, it would have shown that the writer of the Quran is not Omniscient, but it was not to be. Praise be to Allah!
Nevertheless, almost all the Muslims have misinterpreted the detail of this verse until now. A subtle reminder that we need to constantly reinterpret the Quran in the context of the time and modern light and not try to box the message from the Infinite and Omniscient into our finite thoughts and knowledge or the time limited interpretations of the past scholars.
Now, I will show the readers from biology why we are not all children of Adam and Eve and what would this Quranic phrase mean more precisely.
If humans, biological name Homo sapiens, were gradually evolving from other apes, over thousands or millions of years, then Adam and Eve are not the common ancestor of all human beings.
If you are skeptical of biological evolution then watch this 11 minute video for a knock out proof from molecular biology about our common ancestry:
If I have, by the Grace of Allah, understood some parts of the Quran better than most, it is because I have learnt not only from the Muslims but the Christians and the Jews and even the atheists. This particular insight came my way from reading the well known atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins.
In his book The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, he traces the ancestry of humans to the very first living form on the planet earth in 39 meeting points with different species. He calls these meeting points Rendezvous. The first Rendezvous is with the chimpanzees and bonobos, the second Rendezvous is with gorillas, the third with Orangutans, the fourth with gibbons, the fifth with old world monkeys, the sixth with the new world monkeys, the tenth with mice and rabbits, the fifteenth with mammal like reptiles and the last or the 39th with eubacteria. You got the idea!
The male and female that the Quran describes is perhaps the the shared parent between humans, chimpanzees and the bonobos.
Now, I share with you the opening of the chapter where Dawkins describes the Rendezvous 1:
Between 5 and 7 million years ago, somewhere in Africa, we human pilgrims enjoy a momentous encounter. It is Rendezvous 1, our ﬁrst meeting with pilgrims from another species. Two other species to be precise, for the common chimpanzee pilgrims and the pygmy chimpanzee or bonobo pilgrims have already joined forces with each other some 4 million years ‘before’ their rendezvous with us. The common ancestor we share with them, Concestor 1, is our 250,000-greats-grandparent – an approximate guess this, of course, like the comparable estimates that I shall be making for other concestors.
As we approach Rendezvous 1, then, the chimpanzee pilgrims are approaching the same point from another direction. Unfortunately we don’t know anything about that other direction. Although Africa has yielded up some thousands of hominid fossils or fragments of fossils, not a single fossil has ever been found which can deﬁnitely be regarded as along the chimpanzee line of descent from Concestor 1. This may be be- cause they are forest animals, and the leaf litter of forest ﬂoors is not friendly to fossils. Whatever the reason, it means that the chimpanzee pilgrims are searching blind. Their equivalent contemporaries of the Turkana Boy, of 1470, of Mrs Ples, Lucy, Little Foot, Dear Boy, and the rest of ‘our’ fossils — have never been found.
Nevertheless, in our fantasy the chimpanzee pilgrims meet us in some Pliocene forest clearing, and their dark brown eyes, like our less predict- able ones, are ﬁxed upon Concestor 1: their ancestor as well as ours. In trying to imagine the shared ancestor, an obvious question to ask is, is it more like modern chimpanzees or modern humans, is it intermediate, or completely different from either?
Notwithstanding the pleasing speculation that ended the previous section — which I would by no means rule out — the prudent answer is that Concestor 1 was more like a chimpanzee, if only because chimpanzees are more like the rest of the apes than humans are. Humans are the odd ones out among apes, both living and fossil. Which is only to say that more evolutionary change has occurred along the human line of descent from the common ancestor, than along the lines leading to the chimpanzees. We must not assume, as many laymen do, that our ancestors were chimpanzees. Indeed, the very phrase ‘missing link’ is suggestive of this misunderstanding. You still hear people saying things like, ‘Well, if we are descended from chimpanzees, why are there still chimpanzees around?’
So, when we and the chimpanzee/bonobo pilgrims meet at the rendezvous point, the likelihood is that the shared ancestor that we greet in that Pliocene clearing was hairy like a chimpanzee, and had a chimpanzee-sized brain. Reluctantly to set aside the speculations of the previous chapter, it probably walked on its hands (knuckles) like a chimp, as well as its feet. It probably spent some time up trees, but also lots of time on the ground, maybe squat feeding as Jonathan Kingdon would say. All available evidence suggests that it lived in Africa, and only in Africa. It probably used and made tools, following local traditions as modern chimpanzees still do. It probably was omnivorous, sometimes hunting, but with a preference for fruit.
Perhaps this ‘shared ancestor,’ at Rendezvous 1 is the male and female that the Quran is referring to and not the prophet Adam or his wife Eve, who lived some 6000 years ago and who are the great great grand parents of many of us but not all.
The other possibility in this Quranic verse could be the very first life form when multiplication changed from the asexual to sexual reproduction in the unicellular organisms.
If you still have hard time conceptualizing this idea then read the whole of the book, by Prof. Richard Dawkins’, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.