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.

Darwins Living Legacy conference opens in Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt 14 November 2009.
Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council and Dr Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria welcomed an international audience of over 500 scientists, science communicators and journalists to Darwin’s Living Legacy Conference at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, today. The Conference, organised by the British Council and the Bibliothecha, marks the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary since the publication of his landmark work “On the Origin of Species by means of natural selection’. Over the next three days 140 multidisciplinary speakers from more than 30 countries will meet at the Conference to discuss a broad range of subjects from cutting edge research in genomics and epigenetics to debates on how best to tackle the issue surrounding evolution and education, faith and science.
Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker Head of the British Council Darwin Now programme, said: ‘Darwin has had an enormous impact on the world, and 150 years on, his work is still causing debate. “Darwin’s living legacy” provides an important space for dialogue which explores how Darwin’s ideas on evolution are still relevant to all our lives in the 21st century.’
Over 100 journalists are attending the Conference not only to report on the papers presented but also to take part in two debates on the media and evolution, scheduled for the closing day of the Conference. Journalists from Argentina, South Africa, Germany, China, Pakistan, and Canada are in Alexandria thanks to Travel Awards provided by the British Council in association with the World Federation of Science Journalists, along with many more local journalists from Alexandria, Egypt and other Arab nations.
The opening day of the Conference saw two debates recorded by the BBC for broadcast. Bridget Kendall, Diplomatic Correspondent for the BBC, UK, hosted a debate on Evolution and Faith in the 21st Century for broadcast on BBC World Service English on Saturday 21st November at 1806 GMT and online. Later in the day Hosam El Sokkari, Head of the BBC Arabic Network, hosted a special episode of the TV talk show Agenda Maftouha (Open Agenda), exploring the perceptions of Darwin’s theory in the Arab and Islamic world, and the interrelationship between science and faith. The show will air of BBC Arabic television on Friday 20th November at 19.10 GMT. Many contributors to these sessions expressed the view that religious belief can be reconciled with acceptance of the theory of evolution. This would seem the best way forward for encouraging dialogue about evolution between people of different faiths and cultures. “The fundamentalism we find in the religious positions poses a problem for the freedom of science. But if one goes on the offensive – saying that science has disposed of religion – that very aggressive scientistic attitude only feeds the resistance of the religious fundamentalist sectors”, noted John Hedley Brooke, President of the International Society for Science and Religion, UK.
“Darwin’s living legacy” runs until Monday 16 November. Noted speakers include Eugenie Scott [Executive Director of the National Centre for Science Education] Michael Reiss [Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London] and Annica Dahlstrom [Professor at the University of Gothenburg]. Key highlights include talks on:
(Not) remembering Darwin in the Darwin Year. Evolution, Politics and Media in Turkey
Clash of Species: The Evolutionary War between Man and Viruses
Evolution, Modern Science and Fundamental Belief Systems
Contemporary Attitudes towards Evolution in the Muslim World
Social and Cultural Impacts of Darwinism and Evolution: Darwin Clarified Why Mammals have 2 Sexes, New Science Sates it’s all in the Brain
The Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance in Bacteria is an Acute Public Health Concern

On a lighter note Alexandria has exploded with noise, cars, flags and firecrackers due to the 2:0 win against Algeria.

Sallie Robins and Julie Clayton