These are the questions that fascinate, niggle and afflict many a thinker, “evolve” often being a dirty word in the Darwinian sense.
The scientific hypothesis that species developed through natural selection, as opposed to divine intervention, has plagued creational debate since Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species in 1859.
For Muslims, the creational discourse is given much Qur’anic detail in Surat ul-Rum. Many verses preface themselves by saying “amongst His Signs” with verse 30 talking specifically about mankind being shaped in conformity with a primordial nature, or a divinely sanctified fitrah.
The English language struggles to grasp the gist of this word, which is in itself a universe of significance. It is best explained by the tradition that men’s souls existed before conception; that they existed in the unseen, and unimaginable, domains of a pre-worldly existence.
In this state, our fitrah, our souls would have been innocent in nature. This is the state of a baby when it enters the material world from the warmth of the womb – confused, crying and seeking the comfort of the mother’s nipple.
The first soul to be created was that of Muhammad (SAW). Adam – the father of our species – admits in the Qisas al-Anbiya to seeing Muhammad’s blessed name inscribed on the Holy Throne.
The great 18th century scholar, Imam ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Alawi al-Haddad, notes that Allah, the Great Shaper, drew mankind out of the loins of Adam to make a covenant (a meethaaq) at Nu’man, a valley near ‘Arafah in Makkah.
This covenant, which is recorded in the Qur’an (7:172), has Allah addressing mankind and asking the question “am I not your Lord”, and mankind responding with the resounding affirmative “yes”.
Imam al-Haddad adds that Allah, the Highest, accepted this covenant, recorded it in heavenly writing and fed it to the Black Stone, the Hajr ul-Aswad, which resides in a corner of the Ka’bah.
This is significant as the Hajr ul-Aswad marks the beginning of the circumambulation (or tawaaf) around the Holy House, whose spiritual domains stretch unseen into the Seven Heavens.
These pre-creational events, and their links to the present, are extraordinary. No other species in our dimension has been blessed with such knowledge. Ancient algae, dinosaurs and other life forms – whilst obeying divine decree – did not know this.
We have to guardedly say “our dimension” because the jinn, plasma beings constituting “smokeless fire”, were created over a 1,000 years before man. However the jinn, who exist on a parallel plane and who know Allah, are not our concern here.
What is interesting is that Aboriginal societies – indigenous peoples close to their fitrah – provide fascinating metaphorical insights into creation, some seeming to accord with our own beliefs of pre-existence.
For example, the French anthropologist, Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, says the Yagua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon told him that before the birth of this earth, our distant ancestors had lived on “another earth”. To us as Muslims, the reference is obvious. To Graham Hancock (who quoted Chaumeil) the focus is more a flying saucer notion of man’s creation.
The earth is said to be 4.5 billion years old. In the Qur’an heaven and earth (20: 31) are described as “one” until they’re “rent asunder”. And in the same verse, “water” is described as the building block of Creation. In some verses, planets are said to “swim” in their orbits, and in others that they’ll “run their courses”.
This is a most convincing argument for the hypothesis of an expanding universe, a universe that is dynamic in movement “all governed by His laws” (7: 54) from its stars right down to the last microscopic particle.
Science claims that the first forms of earthly life developed about 4 billion years ago and that the first man, Homo erectus, emerged over one million years before the modern era. The most prominent theory is that early hominids moved from Africa across the then bridged continents into Europe and Asia.
The first so-called human species, Homo Heidelbergensis, is said to have had two branches – the Neanderthal line and the Homo sapiens line. The Neanderthal, the beetle-browed, ape-like figure, had primitive notions of socialisation, the use of fire and hunting.
Archaeologists speculate that Homo sapiens, a distinct species, did not mix with the Neanderthals, who mysteriously disappeared about 35,000 years ago. Ancient Nguni traditions contain some tantalising allusions to a parallel, inferior species inhabiting the earth.
So when did prophetic awareness enter the hominid realm? Were the Neanderthals aware of a greater being? The Qur’an states that Allah gave man speech (55: 33). And we have to bear in mind that every speaking nation on earth has, without fail, left behind a mythological legacy – be it oral or inscribed.
Symbolism is the lingua franca of consciousness, and it appears as if the Neanderthals left us a sterile silence. However, Homo sapiens – who anatomically resemble today’s man – did express a self-consciousness that transcended basic instinct.
His cave drawings – expressing divine or unearthly symbolisms – date back to 30,000 years. Decorative beads and implements (also indicating a symbolic understanding) date back to about 77,000 years, as excavations at the Blombos cave near Mossel Bay reveal.
But were these people the tribe of Adam? This indeed becomes the critical question, for Adam descended to earth from the paradisiacal realms with Eve. What we can safely say is that Adam (as) represents the moment that Allah, as He says, wanted to be known. But exactly when was that moment?
Conventionally, it appears as if Adam (as) descended to earth about 15,000 years ago. The chain of prophetic lineage, and its relation to parallel historic events such as in Babylon and in Egypt with Nimrod and the Pharaoh, appears to indicate this. There are, of course, still many, many questions.
It is my view that Adam (as) is the proverbial “missing link’, the bridge between Neanderthal-type primitivism and true God-consciousness. In fact, the “missing link” is the prophetic message of Divine Unity, a message that would be carried through the loins of Adam to Muhammad (SAW).