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Pakistani clerics 'cancel' theory of evolution, what next?

S Khan in Islamabad
October 25, 2023

Islamic clerics in Pakistan have forced a college professor to publicly renounce Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as against Islamic law. The display was concerning to academics in the Muslim-majority country.

Professor Sher Ali surrounded by clerics, reading a statement
Professor Sher Ali (center) was forced to proclaim that he considers all scientific views that are against Shariah and against God's orders to be falseImage: X/Niazbeen

Islamic clerics in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently forced a college professor to denounce Charles Darwin's theory of evolution — creating a wave of concern among academics across the South Asian country.

"On the Origin of Species," the landmark 1859 book by the British naturalist, proposed that biological species change over time through the acquisition of traits that favor survival and reproduction — provoking a revolution in scientific thought.

But the clerics' rejection of Darwin's theories has sparked a sense of fear among educators.

What prompted the clerics' move?

Earlier this month, Sher Ali, an assistant professor of zoology who teaches Darwin's theory of evolution as part of a course at the Government Post Graduate College in Bannu, gave a speech on women's rights in Islam.

Ali's speech came on the heels of local protests against women who appear in public without adhering to the traditional Islamic dress code. 

Following the event, clerics accused Ali of spreading debauchery and speaking against Islam, not only in his speech but also during his university lessons.

Ali pointed out that Darwin's theory was discussed in a chapter of a biology textbook used in one of his courses, and therefore it was actually his job to teach it.

Rafiullah Khan, a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's Bannu chapter, said Ali clarified his position on social media, where he has more than 20,000 followers.

"Ali asked those who were objecting to his teaching of Darwin's theory to approach the court and get it declared illegal, saying he was teaching it because it was his responsibility to teach and that he was being paid by the government for this," said Khan.

Professor forced to denounce Darwin

But last week, Ali was forced to publicly apologize for his rationalist views and for teaching Darwin's theories.

Video footage that has gone viral on social media shows Ali, surrounded by clerics, reading a statement proclaiming that he considers all scientific views such as Darwin's theory that are against Shariah, or Islamic law, to be false.

Is Darwin's theory of evolution true?

"According to Shariah, the woman's intelligence is inferior to that of man," Ali read out from the affidavit, a copy of which was received by DW.

"I consider this the final word on this issue and believe that women should be covered from head to toe while venturing out. Women can only go out if it is needed or necessary," he said.

Many academics point out that the evolution theory has always triggered debates and controversies. Farhat Taj, a prominent Pukhtun intellectual and professor, said Darwin's theory has been controversial in Pakistan's syllabuses.

"And those who showed a modicum of belief in this theory, they would be ridiculed. It is still going on. In Bannu, a professor was traumatized by clerics because he was teaching the theory of evolution," Taj added.

Sense of fear in educational institutions

Faizullah Jan, a professor at the University of Peshawar, believes it's not just Darwin's theory that cannot be taught in an objective manner — but several other subjects as well.

The government recently issued a document asking universities' vice-chancellors to discourage the teaching of feminism.

"The circular said that the menace of atheism and feminism is spreading like a disease in Pakistan's institutions, which is destroying the moral structure of Pakistani society," said Jan, adding that he believes the authorities will go further.

"Today, they are preventing teachers from teaching Darwin's theory. Tomorrow they will ask teachers not to teach the negative sides of patriarchy, and then … other subjects will also come."

'Islamization' of education draws criticism

Activists claim the suffocating environment and clerics' influence are not confined to a few regions or provinces but have spread throughout Pakistan and beyond its borders.

Many conservative religious groups and states have struggled, or refused, to accept scientific evidence for evolution.

Earlier this year in neighboring India, the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the public body that designs curriculum and textbooks, expanded its list of omitted topics to include Darwin's theory of evolution, among others.

Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a former professor of Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, said such changes in education gained momentum during the 1980s.

In chemistry, students were taught that when oxygen and hydrogen are mixed, they do not turn into water automatically, Nayyar told DW.

"But they were told that they turned into water by the will of God," he added. "This is one of the ways to show the extent of Islamization of education and syllabus."

Nayyar believes this goes completely against scientific thinking.

"Scientific thinking teaches us what is scientific fact here — it is the same anywhere in the world."

Edited by: Keith Walker