Real Voices interview: Bryan, Usamah and Kanwaljit

Meet three people from Buddhist, Islamic and Sikh backgrounds and read their thoughts on evolution

Bryan Appleyard is Vice-President and Chairman of the Buddhist Society. He has been a Buddhist for more than 40 years.

Usamah Hasan is a Senior Lecturer in Computing Science at Middlesex University and an imam at Tawhid Mosque in east London. He is also a member of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Kanwaljit Kaur-Singh is Chair of the British Sikh Education Council and a member of many interfaith organisations. She has written several books on Sikhism, and contributes to radio and television on faith issues.

Do you think humans evolved from ape-like ancestors?

Bryan Appleyard: Buddhism differs from the other major religions in that we don't believe in a creator, or a beginning.

Buddhism is based on the law of change and impermanence - that humans and the universe are in a constant state of flux - and evolution is inherent in that process. We have no opinion on whether we evolved from apes. There's no teaching of it, but equally no denial of it.

Usamah Hasan: There's an ongoing debate in the Muslim world about that. Most traditional clerics resist the idea, because the texts say that Adam was the first human, which means he had no parents. If he had evolved from apes, he would have had two not-fully-human parents.

However, most Muslim scientists do accept some form of Darwinian evolution because of the experimental evidence. They interpret the texts to mean that Adam was the first man with the intellectual and spiritual faculties necessary to make him human.

Kanwaljit Kaur-Singh: The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred book, says that only God knows when, how and why He created the universe and the life forms inhabiting it, including us humans. Our attempts to pin down the exact date and timing of the creation, and its mechanisms, are purely conjecture.

Do you think other animals and plants have evolved from earlier forms?

KK-S: It's the same answer. Only God knows what He did - we are all just guessing.

BA: Yes that's a perfectly acceptable view. It's just not a teaching of Buddha.

UH: Yes certainly. For Muslims, plants and animals evolving is not an issue. It is the idea of Adam having evolved from apes that is a bone of contention.

How do you think life on Earth began?

BA: Buddhists don't ask that question. Buddhists believe that there was no beginning and there will be no ending.

KK-S: The Guru Granth Sahib says that before the world began, there was utter darkness - a void. There was only God, and He was in abstract form, in a state of meditation. Then God manifested Himself. He created himself and the universe in his own time and at his own will. He is everywhere, inside and outside everything he created.

What does your religion say about the origins of humans? How have scientific discoveries affected these beliefs?

KK-S: There's no contradiction with scientific discoveries. God created the world as it pleased Him and He's still creating it. Evolution is part and parcel of it.

UH: The Qur'an says that Adam was created from clay, which is a mixture of water and soil. Science fits with this: most of our bodies are made of water, and the clay theory of the origin of life suggests life began when complex organic molecules formed on clay crystals.

How do your religious beliefs influence your thinking about evolution?

UH: God is a given, there is no doubt He exists. Because if God doesn't exist, why is there anything at all? You can't argue against God, no matter how much you find out about evolution.

KK-S: We believe that God is still creating the universe, so it's still evolving.

BA: My religious beliefs don't go against evolution. I have no reason to doubt the origin of the species. Buddhists believe all life forms are constantly changing.

How do you think scientific and religious thinking differ (if they do)?

UH: From the seventh to the 17th century, the Muslims led the world in science and passed their knowledge to Europeans, so science is deeply embedded in the Muslim consciousness.

We believe that the role of science is to understand how God created the universe - and religion is about understanding the meaning behind it. We are told that God's nature is reflected in man, and that's why man has a spiritual role and responsibility in the world.

KK-S: Sikhs don't find any conflict with scientific theory. Scientists talk about the Big Bang. Likewise, the Guru says there was nothing, then God manifested Himself by creating the universe.

As early as 500 years ago, the first Guru, Nanak, said there are millions of galaxies, stars and worlds, all of which may have their own civilisations, prophets and creeds. He also said that the planets stand where they are due to some divine law, which is the power that supports their weight. Both these beliefs have been borne out by science.

Religious thinking is about our job on Earth, which is to lead a good life - to earn honestly, not deprive or exploit others, and to serve God's humanity. In this way we purify our souls so that they can go back to God when we die.

BA: Buddhism is similar to science in its analytical approach to life. Like a doctor, Buddha diagnosed the cause of our human problems in the Four Noble Truths, and offered a practical solution in the Noble Eightfold Path of Practice. Both the problem and the solution, are laid out 'scientifically', as formulas broken down into separate stages. There's no punishment or reward by a divine being. Simply, our intensified actions lead to favourable or unfavourable results. 

The difference is that where science theorises about possible causes of the universe, such as the Big Bang, Buddhist insight about the nature of reality is based on direct personal experience. Buddha told us not to believe what he said, but to find out for ourselves.

Can science and religion coexist?

BA: Yes. Religion and science take different routes to understanding the universe, but they meet at many points.

UH: Yes, they did for centuries. In the early period Muslim scientists were devoutly religious. We believe everything comes from God, including our scientific intellect.

Does it matter if large numbers of people reject evolutionary theory?

UH: It would be a problem if lots of people reject the idea of the sacred. It would also be a problem if people reject evolutionary theory based on blind fundamentalist belief in creationism. But if people reject it on the basis of evidence, that's not a problem. It is irrational religion and science that are problems.

BA: No, it's entirely up to them.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Genetics and genomics, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development