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Early Arabic Views of Darwin MARWA ELSHAKRY 2009 marked both the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the bicentennial of his birth. While most people today associate Darwin’s name with that book, his most globally popular work by far for many decades was his 1871 Descent of Man—though it is now less widely read than Origin and many of the ideas it expresses (such as on race or on sexual selection) have had a much less successful afterlife than those of his earlier work. In fact, when I assign Descent in my classes, many of my students find themselves surprised by the contrast between the somewhat ‘‘outmoded’’ impression made on them by this work and their image of the Darwin who, despite his now two-hundred-year-old vintage, still lives among us in many ways as a kind of contemporary. Thanks largely to what some have called the ‘‘evolutionary synthesis’’ of the 1930s and the 1940s, which combined population genetics with natural selection, Darwin’s theory of evolution helped to unify the disciplines of biology and has since been continuously reformulated in that context. This development also helped to purge his theory of what many increasingly saw as its ‘‘unacceptable metaphysical elements.’’1 And yet the initial popularity of Darwin’s Descent had been due to the fact that it was there that he finally made most explicit the implications of his theory for both metaphysics and morality.2 In the third chapter of Descent, from which the above passage is excerpted, Darwin laid out the ‘‘comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals’’ as part of his ‘‘evidence for the descent of man from some lower form.’’ Among the powers he listed were the emotions, memory, imagination, reason, abstraction, language, sense of beauty and, finally, as Darwin puts it in the chapter index, ‘‘belief in God, spiritual agencies and superstitions.’’ To demonstrate that ‘‘religion’’ was a ‘‘mental power’’ common to humans and animals, however, Darwin had to seriously rework the notion of religion itself. 128 early arabic views of darwin  129 He borrowed liberally from contemporary social thinkers (E. B. Tylor, John Lubbock, Herbert Spencer, and others), but I would argue that it was Darwin himself who did the most to radically reformulate the idea of religion in the modern world. What we find in these passages is the notion of religion as an abstract category—one that was cross-cultural, historically progressive, and universal (or, in Darwin’s language, instinctual). Only thus could Darwin argue that it was in fact an evolutionary ‘‘mental power’’ or faculty common to all peoples. It is precisely this aspect of Descent that provides us with a key explanation for Darwin’s early sensational popularity, both within the Western Christian tradition and beyond it. Yet the idea that faiths could evolve and be considered comparatively, and potentially hierarchically, from a naturalistic perspective —as in from ‘‘fetishism’’ to ‘‘polytheism’’ and ultimately to ‘‘monotheism’’ (as described in the last paragraph of the excerpt)—held a potentially highly subversive message from the point of view of religious faith, for it could allow you to argue for the radical contingency of belief in general. This was how Shiblı̄ Shumayyil, for instance, interpreted Darwin’s views. Shumayyil (1850– 1917) was a lapsed Catholic who was educated in Protestant missionary schools in Ottoman Beirut and was among the first and most influential writers to popularize Darwin’s ideas in the Arabic-speaking Muslim world. He was also heavily influenced by German materialism: like many Ottoman intellectuals at the time, he read Darwin’s theory of evolution through the lens of Ludwig Büchner and Ernst Haeckel. Shumayyil’s main opus was, in fact, a translation of Büchner’s commentaries on Darwin. That he chose to translate Büchner rather than Darwin was deliberate because he felt it completed Darwin’s vision and drew the proper materialistic conclusions from it.3 But, as we will see, Shumayyil came under attack from many sides for what many felt was a rather distorted version of Darwin’s own ideas. In short, the arguments elicited by Shumayyil suggest that there remained a kind of fundamental ambiguity in Darwin’s treatment of the question of religion. In reflecting on these passages, therefore, it is useful to consider how Darwin defines ‘‘religion,’’ and in particular how we might think of the novelty of his definition vis-à-vis earlier treatments...


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