We need devout Muslim scientists to speak out, says Usama Hasan, who has had death threats for saying evolution is compatible with the Koran.
What did you say about evolution that upset people in your community?
My trouble started three years ago when I wrote an article saying that we needed to move beyond the simplistic idea held by many Muslims that God created Adam from clay and then breathed life into him. This literal interpretation of the Koran is still the dominant position. I was brought up a creationist and was a fundamentalist for many years, but I came to the conclusion that evolution is entirely compatible with the Koran and that alternative interpretations of the creation story that account for evolution are valid.
What happened recently to stir things up?
Things escalated in December when a visiting influential Saudi scholar, Salir al-Sadlan, was asked whether someone who believed in evolution was fit to lead prayers, and he said no. An online petition against me was set up, saying I should be removed from al-Tawhid mosque, where I have been a prayer leader for 25 years. So in January I held a lecture at the mosque to clarify my position on why evolution does not undermine the scriptures. The lecture was disrupted by a small gang of fanatics and I had to abandon it.
How has this affected your everyday life?
It has been quite serious. At the lecture a leaflet was handed out saying that anybody believing in evolution or who propagates it must be killed. Knowing some of the people behind this, in the small fanatical fringe of the British Muslim community, I know they believe that literally. They are pro-violence. So it was very worrying, especially as I have young children. I have had to take out extra security at home, which I guess will stay for the rest of my life.
How common is the creationist position among Muslims?
It is the default position. Most of us are taught that evolution is wrong, unproven and a blasphemy. A lot of people enjoy science programmes on TV such as those by David Attenborough, but they tend to say he’s an unbeliever so we can’t trust him.
Recently you retracted your views because of the outrage they caused. Could you explain?
My retraction was saying that I misjudged how to go about explaining these things. Sooner or later someone will have to address the issue of evolution – it’s a no-go area, especially with the clerics – but I’m abandoning my attempt to reconcile it with the Koran until things settle down. I am not willing to risk my life over this issue.
With hindsight I probably went too far in stating a position so explicitly; a better option may have been to simply open up the debate. I have been heartened by the support I have had. Many people have said that while they didn’t actually agree with me, I should have the right to discuss the matter.
What is the best way to raise the issue of evolution among Muslims?
We need more Muslim scientists who are known to be devout to speak out about their views. I have had a lot of support from Muslim scientists, but they wouldn’t speak out because they knew the reaction they were likely to get. They were scared.Interview by Michael Bond
I want Muslims to question creationism, says the physicist and imam who has had death threats for supporting evolution