Rumi and Evolution

Mansur Qureshi

In a casual conversation with Badar on our recent visit to Las Vegas, the question of evolution and the surprising support that it got from Allama Iqbal came up. I again read aloud and with great pleasure Rumi's words from the Mathnavi which Allama had quoted and which I had reproduced in July's edition of the family web pages last year. Not only is Rumi's vision in keeping with Darwin's theory of evolution, it goes one step further and postulates the next stages in this evolutionary process.

It is remarkable stuff, made even more remarkable, as Badar pointed out, because Rumi's comments were made eight hundred years before Darwin thought up his theory of evolution. So Badar rightly asked: How did Rumi know? "His Mathnavi is not known as 'The Quran in Persian language' for nothing" - was my lame reply. It had simply not occurred to me that Rumi had upstaged Darwin on evolution. Perhaps I was not alone in making this mistake. No one to my knowledge, seems to have cottoned on to it. So is it true? Did Rumi describe the idea of evolution long before Darwin did? Verifying a few dates might help: here are some from the excellent Wikipedia.

Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 - 1273 CE) wrote these beautiful lines in his Mathnavi which is a six volume poem comprising thousands of couplets. Darwin (1809 -1882 CE) was born about eight hundred years later and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838. His 1859 book 'On the Origin of Species' established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature.

Following is the relevant extract from my previous article for those who wish to ponder further on this matter:

Allama introduces with passion the following passage by Rumi in 'Is Religion Possible?' by saying that the formulation of the theory of evolution in the world of Islam brought into being Rumi's tremendous enthusiasm for the biological future of man. No cultured Muslim can read such passages as the following without a thrill of joy:

' Low in the earth I lived in realms of ore and stone;
And then I smiled in many-tinted flowers;
Then roving with the wild and wandering hours,
O'er earth and air and ocean's zone,
In a new birth,
I dived and flew,
And crept and ran,
And all the secret of my essence drew
Within a form that brought them all to view -
And lo, a Man!
And then my goal,
Beyond the clouds, beyond the sky,
In realms where none may change or die -
In angel form; and then away
Beyond the bounds of night and day,
And Life and Death, unseen or seen,
Where all that is hath ever been,
As One and Whole.'
(Rumi: Thadani's Translation)

Without laying a claim to being a 'cultured Muslim', I must admit that I was thrilled to read these beautiful lines. M Saeed Shaikh, the editor and annotator of my volume of 'Reconstruction' explains in a detailed note that Nanikram Vasanmal Thadani has included Rumi's inimitable lines from Mathnawi, iii, 3901-06, 3912-14 in The Garden of the East, pp 63-64 and has made it clear in the preface to his book that 'The poems ... are not translations or renderings ... ; they are rather intended to recreate the spirit and idea of each master ....' . I was able to find Rumi's original lines in my edition of the Mathnawi (with some difficulty, I must say, as it does not have line numbers and even omits page numbers from list of contents!) and to me Thadani's wonderful translation seems to do full justice to the original.

Iqbal adds a historical note to the above in 'The Human Ego' by asking and answering the question: How did man first emerge?. He quotes verses 19: 66-67 and 56: 60-62 from the Qur'an which, he says, opened a new vista to Muslim philosophers and prompted Jahiz (d. 255 A.H.) to hint at the changes in animal life caused by migrations and environment generally and Ibn Maskawaih (d. 421 A.H.) to give 'a clear and in many respects thoroughly modern theory of the origin of man.'

I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to read all this. Even the idea of the theory of evolution was (and perhaps still is) regarded by majority of Muslims as ridiculous and totally unacceptable. However, it is remarkable that early Muslim philosophers, taking a cue from the Quran and Rumi, not only traced evolution to their own time but even managed to peep into the future.
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