Do Non-Literal Readings of Adam, Eve and the Fall in Islamic Scripture in Light of Evolution Entail Hermeneutic Scientism?

Shoaib Malik
Wednesday 3 November 2021
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Evolutionary biology states that all biological life forms are connected through a bio-historical lineage. In direct contrast to the traditional Islamic view, this entails that humans, and all other species in fact, were not directly or instantaneously created by God as informed by Islamic scripture. More specifically, evolutionary biology questions the creation narrative of Adam, Eve, and the Fall (henceforth referred to as the AEF narrative); it entails that Adam and Eve must have had parents.

Muslims have responded to this challenge through various strategies. Some accept evolution without question, while others completely reject it. From the former camp, one way of reconciling Islamic scripture with evolutionary biology is by interpreting the story of AEF non-literally. The most well-known advocate of this line of reasoning is the eminent molecular biologist, Rana Dajani, and Pakistani philosopher-poet, Muhammed Iqbal. Dajani observes that the AEF narrative is a story about moral lessons and therefore need not conflict with her belief in evolution. Iqbal believes that Adam is a symbol of humanity rather than a real agent.

This theological puzzle will explore if such non-literal readings are forms of hermeneutic scientism. In other words, it explores the question: does replacing the standard reading of AEF with a non-literal reading in light of evolutionary biology entail hermeneutic scientism?

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Evolutionary Biology

Evolutionary biology provides a scientific explanation of the biodiversity that we see in the animal and plant world. It rests on three core principles:

  1. Deep time
  2. Common descent
  3. Mechanisms: natural selection, and random mutations (Neo-Darwinian rendition)

The first principle states that our timeline is much older than our earlier presumptions and/or speculations. It was not uncommon to believe that the world was 6,000 years old prior to the developments in geology in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. By contrast to such belief, our current estimates reveal that earth was created around 4.6 billion years ago while our universe was created 14.6  billion years ago. This is a difference of great magnitude.

The second principle is also in stark contrast to our prior conceptions. For a long period of time, the Great Chain of Being was the dominant worldview, at least among followers of the Abrahamic faiths. This framework viewed the world in terms of fixed ontological settings, like rungs of a ladder, with increasing perfection as you go up. Starting from the most basic level, minerals only exist as simplistic matter. Plants are higher on the chain due to increased complexity; they can reproduce unlike minerals. Animals are more perfect than plants because of increased manoeuvrability. Humans are higher up in the chain than plants and animals because of their advanced intelligence. However, the chain does not stop there and is successively followed by many metaphysical entities, e.g. angels and heaven, with God being right at the top due to His absolute perfection. Each part of the chain is directly created by God and are not physically interconnected with one another as is understood in evolutionary biology (Malik 2021, Chapter 5).

This worldview was challenged in the late eighteenth century. Jean Baptiste Lamarck was one of the first modern proponents of biological ancestry. He believed that all biological life was interconnected through a historical lineage. Latter entities were descendants of biological ancestors. However, he did not believe in common ancestry. His interpretation of the history of life is best depicted as blades of grass. In his interpretation, life spontaneously arises several times throughout the ages, which entails that there were several successive yet independent evolutionary pathways that progressed in parallel. Lamarck believed that humans were the highest and the inevitable peak point of evolutionary pathways. Other animals and plants that we see today are younger evolutionary pathways in relation to the evolutionary timeline of humans. Eventually, all other timelines will lead to the development of human beings (Corsi 1988).

Charles Darwin, the man famously known for evolution as we know it today, agreed with Lamarck that life evolved. However, unlike Lamarck, he argued for common ancestry. In contrast to the blades of grass metaphor, however, Darwin viewed evolution like a tree, which has a trunk, several branches, and twigs. All life was interconnected and not separated due to parallel pathways initiated by different and separate origins of life (Ruse 1999).

The third principle is about the mechanism of evolution. What makes evolution tick? When Charles Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution, he had moderate success with convincing the scientific community about ancestry, but he struggled to convince it of the plausibility of his preferred mechanism: natural selection. In essence, natural selection explains that species carrying conducive biological traits, which are inherited from external environments and aid in competitive survival, tend to reproduce successfully. But with the constant flux found in nature, those pressures also vary through time and space. A branching of species occurs because certain members of the parent species diverge from the original group and adapt to different localities due to different environmental pressures (Stearns and Hoekstra 2005).

However, Darwin did not possess a clear concept of heredity and variation – nobody did at the time (Müller-Wille and Rheinberger 2012). Such a concept was important because it would show exactly how differences and similarities in successive generations between and within species could be explained. Since the concept of the gene was not established in Darwin’s time, the validity of natural selection as a causal mechanism of evolution remained questionable, with many competing theories until the 1930s, which is when Mendelian genetics rose to the surface. Mendelian genetics illustrated how genes and mutations possessed significant explanatory value in that they could explain heredity and variation. It was merged with natural selection to form what is now known as Neo-Darwinism or the Modern Synthesis (Bowler 2015). In this new framework, there is a constant dialectic tension between genes and the environment whereby chance-like events, i.e. no long-term purposes in mind, can equally lead to positive, negative, or neutral traits to be expressed. Such chance-like events can be external, e.g. natural disasters, or internal, e.g. random genetic mutations. Putting all this together, the biodiversity that we have identified is the result of several successive generations of heredity, variations, and adaptions across deep time (Futuyma and Kirkpatrick 2017). In this account, and in contrast to Lamarck, humans are but one accidental product of a long and complicated evolutionary pathway.

Turning to the 21st century, there is now debate about whether the Modern Synthesis is indeed adequate to explain all of life’s nooks and crannies. Some believe that the causal efficacy and/or relevance of natural selection and random mutation need to be questioned. The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis has gained moment as a possible alternative to or, rather, a natural transformation of the Modern Synthesis (Pigliucci and Müller 2010). This position advocates for the inclusion of other causal mechanism such as niche generation or epigenetics, among others. Neo-Darwinists naturally disagree. Whether the Modern Synthesis will remain, be transformed, or be left behind remains an open question (Laland et al. 2014; Wray et al. 2014).

The first principle is uncontroversial in the Muslim world. To be sure, there are references to a six-day (sittati ayyām) creation in Islamic scripture, but these could be interpreted as different time spans, similar to day-age creationists. This is why we do not see young-earth creationism in the Muslim world. The second and third principles are much more problematic (Malik 2021, Chapter 4). What concerns us here is the second principle. Muslims have generally believed that humans are a special creation and that Adam and Eve are progenitors of humankind, which is predicated on scriptural references. We turn to this in the next section.

2.2 Islamic Scripture

Elements related to the creation of Adam are mentioned throughout the Qurʾān.[1]
These do not follow any chronological order (the Qurʾān itself isn’t arranged in chronological order and does not map out history chronologically). To begin with, the Qurʾān makes general claims about humankind’s creation from base materials such as dust, earth, clay (of various kinds, e.g. dry or sticky), dark mud, and seminal fluid:

People, [remember,] if you doubt the Resurrection, that We created you from dust, then a drop of fluid, then a clinging form, then a lump of flesh, both shaped and unshaped: We mean to make Our power clear to you … (Qurʾān 22:5)

To the Thamud, We sent their brother, Salih. He said, ‘My people, worship God. You have no god other than Him. It was He who brought you into being from the earth and made you inhabit it, so ask forgiveness from Him, and turn back to Him: my Lord is near, and ready to answer.’ (Qurʾān 11:61)

He is the one who created you from clay and specified a term [for you] and another fixed time, known only to Him; yet still you doubt! (Qurʾān 6:2)

So [Prophet], ask the disbelievers: is it harder to create them than other beings We have created? We created them from sticky clay. (Qurʾān 37:11)

We created man out of dried clay formed from dark mud. (Qurʾān 15:26)

Man should reflect on what he was created from. He was created from a fluid, ejected, then he emerges from between the backbone and breastbone. (Qurʾān 86:5–8)

There is also a ḥadīth which explicitly states that God took a handful of soil from the earth and fashioned Adam’s lifeless body (Muslim 2611). This narrative aligns with some verses which mention how God created Adam from these base materials and then injected into Adam a spirit (rūḥ):

Such is He who knows all that is unseen as well as what is seen, the Almighty, the Merciful, who gave everything its perfect form. He first created man from clay, then made his descendants from an extract of underrated fluid. Then He moulded him; He breathed from His Spirit (rūḥihi) into him; He gave you hearing, sight, and minds. How seldom you are grateful! (Qurʾān 32:6–9)

Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a mortal out of dried clay, formed from dark mud. When I have fashioned him and breathed My spirit (rūḥī) into him, bow down before him.’ (Qurʾān 15:28–29)

Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a man from clay. When I have shaped him and breathed from My Spirit (rūḥī) into him, bow down before him.’ (Qurʾān 38:71–72)

Another ḥadīth explicitly mentions that people are known as the children of Adam while Adam himself was created from dust: “People are all the children of Adam, and Adam was [created] from dust” (Tirmidhī 3955). The notion of humanity as Adam’s children (banī Adam) is also found in the Qurʾān (7:27; 36:60).

Furthermore, there are ḥadīths that mention Adam as the father of humanity:

On the Day of Resurrection the Believers will assemble and say, ‘Let us ask somebody to intercede for us with our Lord.’ So they will go to Adam and say, ‘You are the father of all the people, and God created you with His Own Hands, and ordered the angels to prostrate to you, and taught you the names of all things; so please intercede for us with your Lord, so that He may relieve us from this place of ours.’ Adam will say, ‘I am not fit for this (i.e. intercession for you).’ (Bukhārī 4476)

People, your Lord is one, and your father is one. Indeed, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a red man over a black man, or of a black man over a red man, except in terms of God-consciousness. (Aḥmad 23479)

These ḥadīths tie in with ḥadīths that are less explicit, but they indirectly maintain Adam’s significance for humanity. There are also verses in the Qurʾān that make it apparent that humanity can be traced down to a single couple, i.e. Adam and Eve:

People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul (nafsin wāḥidatin), and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women far and wide; be mindful of God, in whose name you make requests of one another. Beware of severing the ties of kinship: God is always watching over you. (Qurʾān 4:1) It is He who created you all from one soul (nafsin wāḥidatin), and from it made its mate so that he might find comfort in her. (Qurʾān 7:189)

People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognise one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware. (Qurʾān 49:13)

To be sure, the mention of “its mate” in the first two verses refers to Eve. Interestingly, there are two interpretations of the first verse (Qurʾān 4:1). It comes down to how one interprets “from it,” which gives us two slightly different accounts of how Eve was created. Haleem (2011, 135) aptly summarises the difference between the two accounts:

‘From it’ is an ambiguous expression in Arabic, which has resulted in two interpretations, each of which has supporting arguments: one takes it to mean ‘part of the soul [nafs],’ without any specification as to which part exactly; the other interpretation takes it to mean ‘of the same kind.’

In the first interpretation, a part of Adam was used to create Eve. This could tie in with the popular account of Eve being created from Adam’s rib. The second interpretation suggests that Eve was created in the same essence as Adam. So, this is not a physical interpretation as such, but more of a metaphysical point. Either way, both of these interpretations indicate that Eve was created miraculously in some relation to Adam, and these are generally recognised as two possible interpretations of this verse (Al-Rāzī 2000, 131; Ibn al-Jawzī 2002, 253; Nasr 2015, 189).

Additionally, the narrative of the fall is clearly mentioned in the Qurʾān in several places, e.g. Qurʾān (2:31–39). The following is a general outline of Adam’s fall from the garden according to the Islamic tradition. It starts with Adam being created by God, who appoints him as a vicegerent upon the earth (the previous verses in which it was mentioned that Adam was created through clay and then injected with the soul should be kept in mind here). Upon seeing this, the angels present asked why God created an entity that would cause damage and bloodshed. God reminds the angels that He knows things they don’t. This is then followed by God teaching Adam names and being asked to name things. The angels are then asked to bow to Adam. Satan refused to do so out of arrogance. Adam and his wife are then instructed to not eat from the tree, but Satan makes them slip, and they end up going against the command of God, after which He expels them from the garden (Wheeler 2002, 15–35; Shafi 2008, 159-187).

Concerning this episode, there is a verse in the Qurʾān where Adam is specifically mentioned as being created by God’s two hands. This reference to God creating Adam with his two hands is juxtaposed with Satan (named Iblīs in Islamic scripture) who refused to bow down to Adam when commanded by God:

God said, ‘Iblīs, what prevents you from bowing down to the man I have made with My own [two] hands? Are you too high and mighty?’ (Qurʾān 38:75)

Some thinkers use this verse to apply exclusivity to Adam’s special creation (Keller 2011, 350–364; Qadhi and Khan 2018). Classical thinkers like Ibn Taymiyya, al-Bayhaqī and al-Bayḍāwī all agree that this point illustrates the uniqueness of Adam’s creation in comparison to other creations (Jalajel 2009, 150–152). However, the exact nature of this distinctiveness remains unclear.

The interpretation according to which Adam has parents can be challenged by the following key verse:

In God’s eyes Jesus is just like Adam: He created him from dust, said to him, ‘Be’, and he was. (Qurʾān 3:59)

While the verse on the face of it seems unproblematic, the verse’s context gives the impression that Adam was created without any parents. This verse is located in the third chapter of the Qurʾān (Sūrah al-ʿImrān), which, broadly speaking, is a critique of Christianity. The chapter sporadically disapproves associating any divine status (though not prophethood) to Jesus throughout the chapter (Ayoub 1992). The similarity being alluded to here is that both were created miraculously (Al-Qurṭubī 2019, 243–244). The mention of “‘Be’ and it was” refers to God manifesting whatever He wills, including being able to violate laws of nature. This is a common motif in the Qurʾān. Furthermore, Mary’s miraculous conception of Jesus is discussed in another part of the Qurʾān (19:16–21). The Archangel Gabriel informs Mary that she will have a son to which she responds (Qurʾān 19:20): “How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste”. Given that Muslims do not consider Mary to have lied, this is taken as clear scriptural evidence of Jesus’ miraculous conception. However, this doesn’t entail that Jesus and Adam are completely isomorphic. There is an extra clause that qualifies Adam’s creation with respect to Jesus. The mention of “creating him from dust,” which refers to Adam in light of the verses we looked at earlier, suggests that Adam was created without any parental agency, unlike Jesus who was born of a mother. So, putting all these verses together, the similitude established between Jesus and Adam in this verse is them not having a father.

Additionally, this verse has a specific historical context to it (asbāb al-nuzūl). The following is one variation of this episode (An-Naisaburi 2010, 139):

Two monks from Najrān came to [the] Holy Prophet. The Messenger of [God] said to them: ‘Accept Islam.’ They then said: ‘We have accepted Islam already before you.’ He [the Prophet] said: ‘You Lie. There are three things which prevent you from accepting Islam. Your prostrating in front of the cross, your saying that [God] has taken a son, and your drinking wine.’ They asked: ‘What do you say regarding Jesus?’ The Prophet kept silent and the following verse was revealed to him [i.e. Qurʾān (3:59)].

The crux of that episode is a back and forth between Prophet Muhammed and some Christian monks. These monks did not accept Islam because of their belief that Jesus was born miraculously without a father, and hence is a divine figure. This verse was revealed in light of this episode (Al-Qurṭubī 2019, 244; Al-Gharnāṭī 2002a; Al-Gharnāṭī 2002b). Taking the thematic and historical context together, this verse reveals an argument based on the comparison of Jesus and Adam, and it goes as follows. If Christians believe that Jesus is divine because of his miracle birth, then Adam is even more divine and miraculous since he was born without a mother and a father. It is for this reason many exegetes and Muslim scholars have interpreted this to mean that Adam had no parents (Ayoub 1992, 183–188; Jalajel 2009, 48–52; Seoharvi 2009, 316–317; Haleem 2011, 135; Nasr 2015, 147; Al-Qurṭubī 2019, 243–244). The verses and ḥadīths we looked at earlier refer to Adam’s creation in general terms, e.g. dust, clay, and the father of humanity. They did not strictly rule out any parental agency of Adam, and could be interpreted in other ways, such as referring to Adam’s creation in heaven or to the constituents of his bodily makeup. However, this verse seems to get to the heart of the issue. It presents an argument against the divinity of Jesus, and the logic of the argument is built upon the premise of Adam’s miraculous creation, i.e. not having parents. For this reason, it is arguably the most important verse in the context of Islam and evolution.

2.3 Non-literal Readings of the AEF Narrative

To reconcile Islam with evolution, some individuals go straight for a non-literal reading. Rana Dajani, a molecular biologist, is one advocate of this strategy. She rests her case on two principles. First, she clearly says that the Qurʾān is not a book of science. Instead, she writes, “it is a guide how to live our lives. Therefore, we don’t look into it for evidence for every scientific discovery” (Dajani 2016, 146). Second, she emphasises human limitations. Since interpretation is a human activity, and humans are bound by time and space, one should not believe in such interpretations with great certainty. As time progresses and more scientific knowledge is accumulated, it may bring fresh insights for understanding scripture. She emphasises the role of ijtihād (scholarly attempt to arrive at an educated opinion) and quotes the following ḥadīth of the prophet to make the point that making mistakes is fine (Dajani 2012, 346; Dajani 2016, 146): “When a judge gives judgment and strives to know a ruling (ijtihād) and is correct, he has two rewards. If he gives judgment and strives to know a ruling, but is wrong, he has one reward” (Bukhārī 7352). From these two premises, she concludes that (Dajani 2016, 146):

The story of Adam in the Qurʾān as well as other stories should not be taken literary [sic]. They are metaphors to learn lessons. The process of human evolution was gradual and concerned groups of humans who evolved from former ancestors.

In supporting her case, she makes two other points regarding how certain words in the Qurʾān are misunderstood, which causes unnecessary tension between evolution and Islam, but, if corrected, they can be used to provide possible space for evolutionary readings. The first comment is related to the word khalaqa (create) (Dajani 2016, 145–146):

… the word create does not necessarily mean spontaneous it could be interpreted as over a period of time. Muslims don’t have a problem with the sun and stars taking billions of years to be created but they do have an issue with living things or specifically humans taking millions of years to be created … Time is a dimension and Allah is above all dimensions. Hence, Allah is not governed by time. Therefore, Muslims should not have any problem with creation taking a long time.

Another advocate who follows a similar strategy is the famous Pakistani poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal. He takes cue from other civilisations as a point of reference and, instead of reading the fall as a literal event, reads it symbolically (Iqbal 2012, 65):

But the clue to a better understanding of our difficulty is given in the legend relating to what is called the Fall of Man. In this legend the Qurʾān partly retains the ancient symbols, but the legend is materially transformed with a view to put an entirely fresh meaning into it. The Qurʾānic method of complete or partial transformation of legends in order to besoul them with new ideas, and thus to adapt them to the advancing spirit of time, is an important point which has nearly always been overlooked both by Muslim and non-Muslim students of Islam. The object of the Qurʾān in dealing with these legends is seldom historical; it nearly always aims at giving them a universal moral or philosophical import.

Accordingly, he suggests that Adam is not a real historical agent as such but more of a symbol for humankind (Iqbal 2012, 66):

Indeed, in the verses which deal with the origin of man as a living being, the Qurʾān uses the words Bashar or Insān, not Adam, which it reserves for man in his capacity of God’s vicegerent on earth. The purpose of the Qurʾān is further secured by the omission of proper names mentioned in the Biblical narration – Adam and Eve. The word Adam is retained and used more as a concept than as the name of a concrete human individual.

In short, Dajani sees the AEF narrative to be some kind of a story or a metaphor, while Iqbal sees Adam more as a concept of humanity. Both interpret the standard narrative non-literally.

3. Discussion

Dajani’s and Iqbal’s approaches can be considered problematic for a variety of reasons. As a general rule, exegetes gave prime importance to the language of Classical Arabic. Most importantly, exegetes generally take things mentioned in the Qurʾān literally unless there are reasons to not do so (Malik 2021). To read something non-literally would require linguistic or contextual indicators (qarāʾin). These could be in the form of similes, analogies, expressions, and idioms. With this in mind, there does not seem to be any employment of similes or metaphors in any of the relevant verses that would indicate they are metaphors, neither as events (the fall of Adam and Eve from heaven) nor as actors (Adam, Eve, and Satan).

Furthermore, the Qurʾān as a whole also does not indicate that Adam is not a real actor. Consider the following verses:

And [mention] when We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam;’ so they prostrated, except for Iblis [satan]. He refused and was arrogant and became of the disbelievers.  (Qurʾān 2:34).

And We said, ‘O Adam, dwell, you and your wife, in Paradise and eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers.’ (Qurʾān 2:35).

And recite to them the story of Adam’s two sons, in truth, when they both offered a sacrifice [to Allah], and it was accepted from one of them but was not accepted from the other. Said [the latter], ‘I will surely kill you.’ Said [the former], ‘Indeed, Allah only accepts from the righteous [who are conscious of Him]. (Qurʾān 5:27)

Indeed, Allah chose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of ‘Imran over the worlds as descendants, some of them from others. (Qurʾān 3:33-34)

Three objections can be raised against non-literal readings of Adam in light of the aforementioned verses. The first is the argument of insensibility. In the first verse God is commanding the angels to prostrate to Adam and they did, except for Satan. In the second verse God is speaking to Adam in the first person and telling him to dwell in heaven with his wife. In the third verse, two specific sons of Adam are specificallydiscussed, i.e. Cain and Abel. In the fourth verse Adam is mentioned alongside Prophet Noah and Prophet Abraham as ones whom God chose in following some form of a connected lineage. It is very difficult to understand this verse metaphorically. What would it mean for Satan to refuse to bow down to the concept of humanity? And how does a concept of humanity have a wife, children or descendents? More particularly, why would God specifically mark out such family members alongside Adam if he really was a concept? Prima facie, reading Adam as a real historical agent is a more consistent reading than interpreting him as a metaphor.

The second argument concerns the wider hermeneutical implications of a non-literal reading. There are several verses in which Adam is mentioned alongside other well-known prophets. The last quoted Qurʾānic verse (3:33-34) is an example. If Iqbal’s or Dajani’s reading were applied consistently throughout the Qurʾān, it would suggest that if Adam is a metaphor or a symbol then Noah and Abraham be too. There is also a verse which likens Adam to Jesus (Qurʾān 3:59). If Adam is indeed a metaphor or a symbol it seems to imply that Jesus was one too! Finally, there is a ḥadīth which states that Prophet Muhammad affirmed that Adam was a prophet (Ibn Hibban 1690), and another one where he states that he himself comes from Adam’s lineage (Bukhari 3557). What would these ḥadīths mean given that Adam is a metaphor or a symbol? All of these verses and authentic ḥadīths collectively make it very difficult to maintain and believe that Adam is a fictional agent; Adam is simply too well corroborated by the wider verses in the Qurʾān and the ḥadīths to be easily read non-literally. If one were to genuinely consider this line of thought, then it would open up the question whether the stories of all the other prophets are metaphorical or a symbolic too. If Noah and Abraham are metaphors or  symbols because of being mentioned in the same verse as Adam, then by implication it would mean that whenever they are mentioned independently they are also metaphors or symbols. The same goes for any other prophets mentioned alongside Adam and others. This would create several theological problems because it would suggest that a large portion of the Qurʾān contains fictitious fables meant only for ethical principles which the Qurʾān itself doesn’t seem to indicate (e.g. this is alluded to in Qurʾān 6:25). Thus, because of the downstream implications of reading AEF non-literally, the entire Qurʾānic corpus becomes problematised if applied consistently.

The third and final contention is the problem of arbitrariness which is intrinsically tied up with the second contention. In response to the second contention, it could be argued that Adam is referred to as a metaphor or a symbol in some parts while he should be read as a real person in other parts. This would eliminate the problem of rendering the whole of Qur’an inconsistent. However, without giving us a proper mechanism whereby we can determine when a mention of Adam should read metaphorically or literally, which has not been provided, it makes it too arbitrary and subjective of an interpretation. Going back again to the verse of Adam mentioned alongside Noah and Abraham, if Iqbal or Dajani wanted to be consistent with their reading it would entail interpreting the first part of the verse as metaphorical and the latter half as literal, which would be an arbitrary interpretation. It is for such reasons that exegetes never actually considered the story of Adam as a figurative illustration. Rather all one can see is disagreement over secondary details where the reality of the central narrative is never really questioned. At best, the story of Adam can be taken to symbolise the power of repentance for humanity – because God forgave Adam for eating from the tree after he asked for forgiveness (Qurʾān 7:23) – but this can be maintained in conjunction with the literal reading rather than instead of it.

By neglecting or undermining any hermeneutic constraints inherent in the language of Classical Arabic in the Qurʾān, it seems that both Dajani and Iqbal read the AEF narrative non-literally for the sake of reconciling Islam with the theory of evolution. However, from a theological perspective, these moves would be seen as a form of hermeneutic scientism because they offer no engagement with the methodological rules of Islamic exegesis. By sidestepping discussions related to the language and context of pertinent verses and ḥadīths, their proposal simplifies the engagement with hermeneutic discourse. This in turn questions the validity of their proposals.

4. Conclusion

In this theological puzzle, I explored if non-literal readings of the AEF narrative are forms of hermeneutic scientism. I argued in the positive. Both Dajani and Iqbal have attempted to read the AEF narrative non-literally in their unique ways as a means to reconcile Islamic scripture with the theory of evolution. However, their simplistic engagement with Islamic hermeneutics while taking the science of evolution seriously questions the robustness of their approaches. Their method seems to be unidirectional whereby the science is taken as a given which is then somehow read into the Qurʾān. It is this imbalanced methodological interface between Islamic hermeneutics and evolutionary biology that yields the charge of hermeneutic scientism. Finally, and to be clear, the highlighted criticisms do not entail that valid proposals cannot be made; it is only the specific approaches of Dajani and Iqbal that are being criticised in this puzzle.


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[1] All Qurʾānic verses are Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem’s translation from All ḥadīth references are taken from

Cite this article

Malik, Shoaib. 2021. “Do Non-Literal Readings of Adam, Eve and the Fall in Islamic Scripture in Light of Evolution Entail Hermeneutic Scientism?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 4).

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Shoaib Malik
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