Debate about Darwin and Islam raged over 100 years ago in the Arab World

By Julie Clayton

Journalists could be forgiven for thinking that this year has seen the first widely publicised debates about Darwin, evolution and religion in the Arab world. But the first media coverage in this region about Darwin’s ideas began over a century ago in Beirut, and it was surprisingly accepting of the validity of evolutionary theory, according to James Secord, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge, UK, speaking in a session this afternoon at “Darwin’s Living Legacy”.

At the same time that newspapers in the West were flourishing – thanks to the invention of the printing press, the Middle East was also enjoying the production of mass-circulation publications. And to illustrate the point, one of the original printing presses used in Egypt at the end of the 19th Century is now on display at the Biobliotheca Library, Alexandria, where the conference is taking place.

One such weekly periodical – the magazine for the intellectual elite in Beirut – was al-muqtataf (“the selection”), which in 1882 began publishing open debates about the relationship of Darwin to Islam. A typical entry (recently translated by Professor Marwa Elshakry at Columbia University in New York) reads “Whatever mistakes and missing links there are in Darwin’s theory or whatever errors were added to it, there is no doubt that despite these limitations, it now includes established truths and that it has given scientists many benefits and opened for them paths to [uncover] unsolved problems in a number of ways. And so it should be said that the just will be pleased with the truth wherever they see it and accept it as a gift from the Lord however it comes”. Contributors to the publication took different positions and interpretations of religious texts, some seeing no conflict with Islam, while others rejected Darwin’s ideas as “a tool of Western Imperialism”, noted Secord today.

Thus we find that the role of the media in communicating the debates between scholars and scientists has early roots in this part of the world.