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The Story of Creation and Change: How an Unchanging God with an Unchanging Message Can Be Adapted to a Modernizing World

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The Story of Creation and Change: How an Unchanging God with an Unchanging Message can be Adapted to a Modernizing World

Nafisa T. Choudhury

Abstract

        Islam is, first and foremost, a religion of revelation. The Holy Quran, the primary religious text, is said to have come directly from Allah (God) and to have been unchanged since the time of its conception. So much emphasis is placed on this direct connection with God that every Muslim child is taught that the Quran’s words alone are unadulterated. Having every line of it written in stone makes Islam a theoretically static religion, with invariable dogma and inelastic views. The problem that arises is that human society is dynamic and constantly modernizing. Can a religion that centers on a God that is called “As-Sabur (the Timeless)” really be continually applicable, especially to human societies such as our own? Simplified, the question is as follows: can steady faith and perpetually changing scientific reason ever be reconciled without serious compromise?

        The answer seems to be necessarily “yes” for Islamic opinion; without changing a single word of the Quran or abandoning religious belief, Muslims have continuously managed to accept scientific reason. In this paper, I claim that the reason that they are able to efficiently engage in this process is because of the vague wording that the Quran uses, which even allows for completely opposite views to be supported. By avoiding grandiose, specific statements that other religion’s texts rely on to convey authority and certainty, the poetic verses of the Quran allow for authors to argue that the words of the text spell out prophecies or predictions that can be considered “miraculous” when the popular scientific opinion of the day manages to coincide with its views. This paper focuses the hypothesis of the adaptability of Islam onto the concept of creation, both of Universal creation and the creation of life, and how it adapts and compares to modern scientific and philosophical beliefs. It further applies a phenomenological approach to the concept of the creation of God and briefly touches upon the differences in malleability between popular Islamic and Christian views of creation.

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Main Text

The creation stories for all three Abrahamic religions- Islam, Christianity, and Judaism- are very similar to each other. While the Judeo-Christian creation story found in  Genesis is considered by many to be contradictory to evolutionary science, and thus is controversial (1, Masci 2009), the majority of practicing, religious Muslims do not object to the scientifically approved creation story. In fact, they do not find there to be conflict between the Quran and science at all, despite abject similarity to the Judeo-Christian creation narrative (2, “Muslim Science”). This is despite several verses in the Quran that seem to be flat out irreconcilable with modern conclusions. Compromises such as these in the Islamic faith are particularly remarkable due to the emphasis that is placed on the unalterable characteristic of the holy book, the Quran.

The Quran is believed to be a direct revelation from Allah to Muhammad. The eleventh Surah, or chapter, in the Quran begins with “A.L.R. This is a book whose verses have been perfected (3, Quran 11:1).” Because of the perfection that is imminent in the Quran due to its divine nature “…the words of God are unchangeable (3, Quran 10:64).” This theme of unchanging, unfaltering, absolute truth in the Quran is a result of Allah being As-Sabur, the timeless (5, 99 Names of Allah). As-Sabur is truly static, as seen in Surah al-Ahzab where the Quran states that “…you will not find the way of Allah undergoing a change (3, Quran 33:63).” This differs from the Bible, which has been changed over time, sometimes generation to generation, and other times amended after evaluation (4, Nolan). It is also worth noting that all translations of the Quran are interpretations, as the Quran was revealed in Arabic and is only truly pure in its original language. It is a point of interest however, that even though the Quran has not been changed in modern times, there is some controversy over its early years. Manuscripts of the Quran have not been found from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, but only appeared a few years after, which could have given rise to some error. Furthermore, there is some claim that verses cancel out or abrogate each other, which would imply that either the Quran is not divine, Allah is not perfect, or that it has been changed since it was revealed (7, Zawadi). Regardless, as the Quran is now, it cannot be changed nor altered- even by a single word- by any person or scholar. Even if the Quran is not kept intact by divine interaction, it is currently kept static through Muslim religious and socio-political tension. Any scholar who attempted to modernize the text via alteration would be immediately deemed blasphemous. This means that modernization attempts in at least the past ten centuries have relied not on textual changes but have rather been allowed only because of the ability of the Quran to adapt to different interpretations.

The story of creation is an apt place to begin to analyze where interpretation began to allow for compromise. The Quran is written poetically and grouped vaguely. While Surahs faction certain subjects together, one subject matter can run across many different Surahs. It is so with the story of creation; it is scattered through the Quran and even found in the Hadith, or teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Paralleling the Genesis account for creation, the Quran comments on Allah’s generation of the universe, stating “And He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six days… (3, Quran 11:7).” The Quran goes into specifics, saying that it took two days to create the Earth, then two to create the mountains, and then another two to create the heavens and stars (3, Quran 41:9-12). Islamic scholars have since claimed that the word “yawm” which was translated to “days” can also be used to mean a period of time. Since the days of creation are not defined by sunset and sunrise as they are in the Genesis account, this reinterpretation of the word “yawm” is allowed. While Islam does borrow heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition of creation, Muslims do not believe in Young Earth creationism, and so the reinterpretation of “yawm” as “period of time” can be stretched as far as needed to fit the mold of scientific thought.

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