The so-called Islamic creationism, where Adam is the first man, is based on a literalist understanding of The allegory of Adam in the Quran. This misinterpretation has been consolidated with creationist hadith stories that were essentially borrowed from Judaeo-Christian sources during the earlier Islamic centuries.
But does the Quranic story of Adam really contradict evolution? The answer is simply NO.
First, it is important to understand that the story in the Quran is a parable where Adam is a mythical name for all humans.
Secondly, the story, in all its seven occurrences (2:29-37, 7:10-25, 15:26-44, 17:51-65, 18:37-51, 20:50-123, 38:69-85), unmistakeably refers to the biological evolution of the whole humankind, on each occasion with an accent on a different aspect of evolution.
Below we will observe how the story, in each of its SEVEN OCCURRENCES in the Quran, invariably supports the idea that humans have originated through the process of evolution.
Evolution: The power of thinking transforms hominoids into humans
He it is who created for you all that is in the Earth, while He settled to the Heaven, and fashioned them with due proportion into seven Heavens; and He knows all things.
And when your Sustainer said to the Forces: Indeed I am establishing upon Earth an inheritor, they said: Do you establish therein one who spreads corruption therein and sheds blood, while we, we hymn Your praise and sanctify You? He said: Surely I know that which you know not.
And He taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the Forces; then He said: Tell Me the names of those if you are right….
He said: O Adam! inform them of their names…
And when We said to the Forces: Prostrate yourselves before Adam…. 2:29-34
Starting with a reference to cosmic and terrestrial evolution, this passage alludes to the power of conceptual thinking as an evolutionary potential that transforms the mindless hominoids (humanlikes; cf. 76:28) into rational humans (Homo sapiens). It describes Adam, or the human, as a divinely authorized inheritor of the Earth (2:30, 6:165, 27:62, 33:72, 35:39) and a successor of his anthropoid ancestors (76:28; cf. 6:133, 70:39-41, 56:57-62), whose aggressive nature concerned the witnessing ‘natural Forces’ about the violences and atrocities humans are inclined to (‘Do You establish therein one who spreads corruption therein and sheds blood …’ 2:30).
Evolution: Humans evolve through stages
And We granted you dominion on Earth, and made for you in it a habitat; little do you give thanks!
And We have created you, then fashioned you, then told the Forces: Fall you prostrate before Adam! 7:10-11
The sequence of these two statements ‘We have created you’ (brought you into being as living organisms) and ‘then fashioned you’ (shaped you as humans) indicates a time lapse. Then, translated here as ‘fashioned’1, the verb sawwara implies making something by gradually changing it through successive stages and thus implies evolution (see note 4).
Here man’s creation, or initiation of his making, represents his earliest stage of origin in the simplest life form, identical with the first life form on Earth, the unicellular organism; and his fashioning suggests the process of gradually being shaped into more complex forms through evolutionary stages (71:13-18). This can be interpreted as referring to embryological evolution of every individual human as well as phylogenetic evolution of the human species as a related member of the whole living world. With the reminder of humans’ God-gifted ‘dominion on Earth’ as a ‘khalifah’ (inheritor of the Earth or successor of previous species, 2:30, 6:133), this reference to the evolution of all humankind before mentioning Adam makes it clear that Adam symbolizes here all humans (31:10, 15:29, 18:37 and 38:71-76).
Evolution: Humans evolve from ‘hydrocarbons’
Verily We created man out of potter’s clay of black mud transmuted. …
And when thy Sustainer said unto the Forces: Surely I am creating man out of potter’s clay of black mud transmuted;
Then when I have fashioned him with due proportion and have breathed into him of My Spirit, do you fall down, prostrating yourselves unto him. …
He said: I am not to prostrate to man whom You have created out of potter’s clay of black mud transmuted. 15:26, 28-29, 33
These verses – after mentioning the galaxies (15:14-18), geo-biological evolution of the primeval Earth (15:19), ecological balance and food chain (15:19-22) – narrate the origin and evolution of humankind who is a ‘khalifah’ (or successor of previous species, replacing them on top of the food chain, 2:30, 6:133). Again, like 7:10-11, the sequence of the two statements ‘Surely I am creating man …’ and ‘Then when I have fashioned him …’ indicates the period of a process. The observation that the word ‘man’ here, like 38:69-85, totally replaces ‘Adam’ in the same allegory depicted elsewhere, makes it obvious that Adam symbolizes all humans.
Please note the expression ‘potter’s clay of black mud transmuted’ (‘salsalin min hama-in masnoon’)2, appearing three times in the passage (15:26, 15:28, 15:33). Now, if interpreted in light of modern evolutionary biochemistry, we can appreciate that black mud (‘hama’) here probably means carbon and that the term transmuted (‘masnoon’, also meaning altered, moulded or aged, which shares same root with ‘sunnah’, ‘to follow a path’) alludes to the changes over lengthy time span of millions of years when ‘hydrocarbons’ were gradually organised into higher organic molecules – like amino acids (protein), nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) and so on – necessary for origin and evolution of life. All these molecules are ‘sounding’, i.e. tale-telling, as they encompass in themselves history of millions of years. Thus the Quran seems to have used the expression ‘black mud transmuted’ to depict the original matrix – carbon (‘black mud’)-based organic molecules like hydrocarbons and their derivatives – whereby started the evolution of human’s physical body.
Evolution: With humble origins, humans have gone on to dominate the world
Or a creation that is far remote in your minds. Thereupon they ask: Who will bring us back? Say: He who initiated you the first time. …
And when We said to the Forces: Fall down prostrate before Adam and they fell prostrate all save Iblis, he said: Shall I fall prostrate before that which You have created of clay? 17:51, 61
This passage, like 15:26-33 quoted above, briefly points to the same evolutionary setting with man’s humble origin from clay. There are many references in the Quran to man’s having been created from earthly material – from dust (18:37, 30:20, 35:11, 40:67), from clay (6:2, 17:61, 22:5, 32:7, 37:11, 55:14), from quintessence of clay (23:12), from sticky clay (37:11), from potter’s clay (55:14), from potter’s clay of ‘black mud transmuted’ (15:26, 15:28, 15:33), from Earth as a ‘growth/ growing plant’ evolving through stages (71:17, 71:14) and so on. All these signify man’s gradual development through a natural process as well as his lowly biological origins, with the fact that his body, like all his biological cousins and all living organisms, is composed of various organic and inorganic particles occurring in the Earth.
However, despite his humble origins, man emerged and has gone on to dominate the world as an agency authorized by the Divine (note: ‘Fall down prostrate before Adam …’).
Evolution: Man was not allowed to witness the evolution of the Universe, nor the evolution of his own self
Do you reject Him who created you out of dust, then out of a drop, then in the end has fashioned you with due proportion into a human? …
Behold! We said to the Forces: Bow down to Adam. They bowed down except Iblis. He was one of the invisibles, and he broke his Sustainer’s Command. …
I did not make them witness the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, nor the creation of their own selves. Nor would I take as assistants the misleaders (e.g., some religious leaders). 18:37, 50-51
Here the story of Adam reappears once again in a context that refers to the lowly origin of man, by embryological development of individual human as well as by phylogenetic evolution of the whole human species, in both cases initially from earthly material, then from a single cell, and then evolving through numerous life forms (32:7-9, 71:17, 77:20-23, 96:1-5). This mention of human evolution as a preface to the story further clarifies that Adam in the Quran epitomizes all humans.
The story is then followed by the statement that the Divine did not allow man to witness the evolution of the Universe, nor the evolution of his own self, nor He needed anyone as assistant. With a reminder of man’s limitations to reconstruct his unwitnessed evolutionary past, and his ultimate dependency on his Maker who alone is independent of anything, this also dismisses the anthropocentric worldview which postulates man, instead of the Supreme Being, as the central entity and value in the Universe.
Evolution: Unfolding of divine messages is like biological evolution
He said: Our Sustainer is He who has given to everything its creation (essence), and further guided it.
He said: And what then of all the previous generations?
He said: Knowledge thereof is with my Sustainer in a Record. My Sustainer does not err, nor does He forget.
He it is who has made the Earth a cradle for you, and has traced out for you ways therein, and sent down from the Heaven water, and thereby We brought forth pairs of various growths (cf. God has made you grow from the Earth as a growth. 71:17). …
From it have We created you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you out once again …
High above all is then God, the Sovereign, the Ultimate Truth! And, therefore, hasten not with the Quran before it has been revealed unto thee in full, but say: O my Sustainer, increase me in knowledge.
And certainly We made a covenant with Adam before, but he forgot, and We found in him no firm determination.
And when We said unto the Forces: Fall prostrate before Adam, they fell prostrate save Iblis; he refused. 20:50-55, 114-116 (the story continues, 20:117-123)
Above occurs four times the term Rabb (Sustainer), which is expounded throughout the Quran with the sequential divine acts of creation, evolution, determination and guidance (82:6-8, 87:1-3). That Adam in the Quran symbolizes man becomes further evident when we observe how the allegory of Adam reappears here once again in a context that refers to the creation and evolution of man along with the cosmic, terrestrial and biological evolution (note the similarity between 20:50-55 and 71:14-18).
Please observe how these references to evolution are followed by the interesting appearance of the statement ‘hasten not with the Quran before it has been revealed unto thee in full … but say: O my Sustainer, increase me in knowledge’. And observe how this advice to avoid haste aptly creates a prelude to the forthcoming story of Adam. As if the Quran is telling the reader not to stop at any literal understanding of this story in particular and the Quran in general (3:7; likewise, the story of Adam in 17:51-65 is also repeatedly linked with similar instructions to avoid hasty, superficial reading of the Quran; 17:9-12, 17:18-19, 17:45-46, 17:61, 17:106). This is in line with the Quranic claim that the meanings and messages3 of the Quran are unfolding in individual and collective human mind (3:7) as a process of gradual manifestation, like biological evolution (3:6).
Then the actual story starts at ‘And certainly We made a covenant with Adam before, but he forgot’. Since the faculty of conceptual thinking is man’s outstanding endowment, his forgetting the covenant with his Sustainer (i.e., the shahada of Oneness, 7:172-173, 2:35-38) shows the weakness and inconstancy of human nature in general (20:115, 7:172-175, 2:36, 4:28). Clearly, Adam serves here as a common noun that symbolizes all humans.
Evolution: Human evolution follows a cosmic blueprint
When your Sustainer said to the Forces: I am creating man out of clay;
Then when I have fashioned him with due proportion and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down before him prostrate … (all prostrated except the Evil Force inside his mind) …
Said He: O Iblis! What prevented you from prostrating before what I have created with My two hands? …
Said he: I am better than he: Thou hast created me out of fire, whereas him Thou hast created out of clay. 38:71-76
The verb sawwa (fashioned with due proportion) appears here, and throughout the Quran, to define the divine attribute Rabb (the Sustainer) as the Evolver, who guides the evolutionary process by following a cosmic blueprint (87:1-3, 82:6-8, 20:50). Thus, to define Rabb as the Evolver of “All the Worlds”, sawwa functions as a multi-layered reference4 to various stages of evolution: from cosmic to biological to anthropic to spiritual (2:29, 15:29, 18:37, 32:9, 38:72, 75:4, 75:38, 79:28, 82:7, 87:2, 91:7).
Some commentators try to reconcile evolutionism with creationism by arguing that, while other animals are created through evolution, Adam as a ‘special creation’ was not part of the same evolutionary process. They cite the phrase above ‘which I have created with My two hands’ in support of their argument. However, though the expression ‘My two hands’ may allude to human’s special status due to the duality in his make, e.g., an animal physique and a conscious self, it doesn’t place humans out of the evolutionary process. Likewise, elsewhere, other animals are also stated as created with God’s own hands (36:71).
The story of Adam, in each of its seven occurrences in the Quran, invariably supports the idea that humans have originated through the process of evolution.
Compare 7:10-11 with the following verses: He has created the Heavens and the Earth with truth, and He has fashioned you, then perfected your shapes: and to Him is the ultimate journeying. 64:3; cf. God it is who made for you the Earth a dwelling place and the sky an overhanging shelter, and fashioned you, then made your shapes excellent! 40:64
The image ‘potter’s clay of black mud transmuted’, as the material for the creation of man, suggests that man was ‘modelled’, ‘moulded’ or ‘designed’ according to a divine plan or cosmic blueprint (cf. 7:11-12, 95:4). Often translated as ‘potter’s clay’, the term ‘salsal’ also denotes ‘dried clay that emits a sound’, and since it is used in the Quran exclusively with reference to the creation of man, it seems to allude to the power of articulate speech which distinguishes man from all other animal species, as well as to the brittleness of his existence and shallowness of his arrogance (cf. He has created man, / Taught him expression. … / He created man from a clay, like the potter’s (or, like pottery, i.e., like a pottery made of mud). 55:3-4, 14). See Asad’s notes on 15:26 and 15:29.
As some of the divine messages in the unfolding Book of the Universe, which includes biological evolution, are relatively clear to man, while some others remain vague (e.g., many apparently ‘useless’ vestiges in human body, like appendix), so are the evolving meanings and messages of the Quran as an unfolding scripture (3:6-7; cf. 29:43).
To define the divine attribute Rabb (the Sustainer) as the Evolver who guides the evolutionary process by following a cosmic blueprint (87:1-3, 82:6-8, 20:50) – and as the Evolver of “All the Worlds” – the verb sawwa (fashioned with due proportion) appears and functions throughout the Quran as a multi-layered reference to various stages of evolution: From cosmic to biological to anthropic to spiritual (2:29, 15:29, 18:37, 32:9, 38:72, 75:4, 75:38, 79:28, 82:7, 87:2, 91:7; cf. Yea indeed, We are able to fashion with due proportion even the very tips of his fingers! 75:4). The word has been consistently used to describe: General evolution of the whole cosmos, life and man (87:1-3); Cosmic evolution as a process of galactic and celestial development (2:29); Phylogenetic and ontogenetic evolution of life and man (32:7-9); Evolution of sex and sexual differentiation between males and females (75:36-40); Anthropic evolution of both individual human and human species (82:6-8); Evolution of the self with human’s individual and collective evolution (91:7-10); and Spiritual evolution prefaced by anthropic evolution (15:28-29 and 38:71-76).
Thus sawwa is a broader term for evolution, compared to sawwara, which is more specific as it is reserved in the Quran to describe the evolution of humans only (3:6, 7:11, 40:64, 64:3; cf. 2:260, 59:24, 82:8). In both occurrences where ‘man’ totally replaces ‘Adam’ (38:71-76 and 15:28-44), we find the word sawwa (fashioned with due proportion) instead of sawwara (fashioned; cf. 7:11). The latter shares the same root with the divine attribute al-Musawwir (The Fashioner, 59:24).