Ibn Khaldun on Human Evolution


During last week’s debate on BBC1’s Big Questions I mentioned to a Muslim Imam (Abdullah Hasan) that Muslim thinkers in previous centuries were far more open to the idea of evolution (including human evolution) than today’s more literalist interpreters of the Qur’an. I specifically mentioned the great 14th century Tunisian jurist Ibn Khaldun who in his Muqaddimah wrote as follows:

It should be known that we – May God guide you and us – notice that this world with all the created things in it has a certain order and solid construction. It shows nexuses between causes and things caused, combinations of some parts of creation with others, and transformations of some existent things into others, in a pattern that is both remarkable and endless.


One should then look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power of touch. The word “connection” with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group.

The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and to reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man after (the world of monkeys). This is as far as our (physical) observation extends.

Now, in the various worlds we find manifold influences. In the world of sensual perception there are certain influences of the motions of the spheres and the elements. In the world of creation there are certain influences of the motions of growth and perception. All this is evidence of the fact that there is something that exercises an influence and is different from the bodily substances. This is something spiritual. It is connected with the created things, because the various worlds must be connected in their existence. This spiritual thing is the soul, which has perception and causes motion.

Above the soul there must exist something else that gives the soul the power of perception and motion, and that is also connected with it. Its essence should be pure perception and absolute intellection. This is the world of the angels. The soul, consequently, must be prepared to exchange humanity for angelicality, in order actually to become part of the angelic species at certain times in the flash of a moment. This happens after the spiritual essence of the soul has become perfect in actuality, as we shall mention later on.

Just amazing, isn’t it? Ibn Khaldun was writing (the full online version can be read here) five hundred years before Charles Darwin. We can only lament that we no longer have many Muslim scholars with the vision and intelligence of Ibn Khaldun.

On the more positive side, it is hard to see how Muslim understanding and appreciation of science and evolution could get any worse so surely things can only get better. One hopes!

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16 Responses to Ibn Khaldun on Human Evolution

  1. Ibn Khaldun was not stating anything new. He was copying the ancient Greeks (two thousand years before Darwin!) in their belief in the “Great Chain of Being.” It basically states that higher forms of being contain the capacities of lower forms of being, for example, the lowest animals have the capacities of the highest plant forms. Now, nobody believes that plants actually physically evolved into animals! This is a philosophical observation about the hierarchical nature of living things, and has nothing to do with historical evolution. I wrote in my article – which I very much doubt you read before drawing your own conclusions from it:

    Some people have cited Islamic thinkers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Khaldun as proof of evolutionary thought having existed in earlier Islamic thought. But Islamic Studies professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, explains their observations as follows: “What the traditional Islamic thinkers said is that you have levels of existence of life forms starting with plant life, which is superseded by animal life through the creative power of God, while this animal life also includes plant life within itself. Moreover, plant life itself has many levels not caused by temporal evolution but by the descent of archetypes into the temporal order as is also true of animals. We know, for example, that we have vegetal nerves about which Ibn Sina speaks. In the animal realm we also have a hierarchy; many Muslim thinkers such as al-Biruni and Ibn Sina have written about this matter and have asserted that there are simple life forms and then ever more complicated life forms and that the complicated life forms contain within themselves the simpler life forms. Obviously human beings have a more complicated life form than the monkey, but possess also some of those characteristics we see in the monkey, but this does not mean that we have evolved from the monkey.” (On the Question of Biological Origins, 2006 http://www.thefreelibrary.com/On+the+question+of+biological+origins.-a0157034139 )

    Thus, they were speaking about a philosophical concept related to the hierarchy of life forms, where the more advanced form contains the capacities of simpler ones. They were not speaking about evolutionary history or common descent.

    • I am afraid I do not find your explanation convincing at all. Ibn Khaldun – in his own words – seems to be perfectly willing to entertain the idea of evolution. Let’s look at his words:

      “transformations of some existent things into others, in a pattern that is both remarkable and endless…The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys…”

      The good news is that young Muslim students do not need to rely on the words of their local scientifically illiterate Muslim Imams but can through the internet now access the writings of great scientists and Muslim scholars directly.

      Hopefully, this should lead to a greater Muslim appreciation and understanding of science and evolution.

      • So do you actually believe that plants evolved into animals, or that Ibn Khaldun actually believed palms and vines became snails and shellfish? Shows how much of a scientist you are. Plants are not morphologically or anatomically similar at all to animals, and I’m pretty sure Ibn Khaldun knew that. This is why evolutionists believe their lineages diverged long before the Cambrian i.e. long before there were any palms and vines or snails and shellfish.

        Ibn Khaldun’s is not a theory of evolution but of classification and taxonomy.

        And do you think the ancient Greeks also prefigured Darwin?

  2. 'Uthman says:

    In Shaykh Yasir Qadhi’s refutation of Usama Hasan, he also responds to the now common claims about the likes of Ibn Khaldun supporting the theory of evolution.

    A working version of the video can be found online here.

  3. Matt D. says:

    I have to agree with Muhammadunali that to say that the passage you are quoting is an example of evolutionary thinking is just plain dishonest. If you want to reconcile the faith with a more flexible attitude to modern scientific theories, muddled thinking and pseudo-intellectualism is not the way to go.

    The most you can derive from the passages you quote is that Ibn Khaldun and his fellow philosophers were more than willing to study and incorporate the most popular scientific theories of their day. This should be somewhat useful to you. But evolutionary thinking it is not.

    It just so happens I’ve read that same passage (in Arabic) a couple of times before and it never crossed my mind that Ibn Khaldun might be talking about evolution. It is very clear that he is referring to some form of an Aristotelian theory about hierarchies of being.

  4. AJ says:

    We seem to forget that it’s about time-periods and a relay-race of knowledge. He added something to the Greek knowledge that clearly was coming closer to modernity and via the import of books to Venice Darwin might have read Khaldun’s work as well, who knows. Copernicus based his whole ideas on Islamic knowledge, they had giant telescopes in that age.

    Yes, the Islamic world used ancient Greece as a base to build on, but so did ancient Greece with earlier Civilisations. Knowledge usually builds on other knowledge and the Bible and the Quran contain the knowledge of the time they’re written in. Sorry for the Bible here, but as a history book the Quran is written much later and contained more known scientific knowledge that goes way ahead of the bible, which is no more than logic.

    And in the philosophy of why the Islamic Golden ages existed and after one dives into all these ‘why’s’ , he or she might discover that Islam was more than it is today. Islam was a secular open minded culture in which religion and science was united instead of separated. Only one of the two is is left and radicalism was added about 60 years ago, but that’s not where it’s all about right? Prophet Mohammed himself ordered to search for knowledge in every corner of the world.. that completely counters the idea of thuggee-nostalgia tribes as ISIS, which are killing blindly as a Mafia. Neither the Quran nor Mohammed backs them. The infamous Thugees killed in a similar way for the goddess Kali, not Allah. Allah was the God of civilisation, the great thinkers, the famous architects and humanists. Not the god of pre-islamic barbaric tribes, no peace is upon them..

    Modern Greeks always want to remind people about their glory of the past, while Muslim scholars don’t even know about their heroes, It would be great if they someday did and they’d teach the world about it. If they did, the Islamic golden ages could be well classified as the missing link in important time periods. The golden ages of Islam deserves a huge place in world history.

  5. عائشة says:

    Reblogged this on مرة أخرى and commented:
    “The fourteenth-century Muslim historian In Khaldun thought that life progressed gradually from minerals to plants to animals” – The Arrival of the Fittest – Andreas Wagner.

    I was astonished as I was reading it, until I found the text in his own words!

  6. Omar Ramahi says:

    From my readings, Ibn-Khaldun along with Ibn Rushd (d: 1198), Ibn Bajah (d. 533), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), Al-Biruni (d. 1048), Al-Jahiz (d. 869), amongst other notable Muslim scholars were at ease with evolution and found no cause for alarm.

    The Qur’an itself alludes to evolution in several verses (as in “we created you in stages”, amongst others, most notably the stories of Adam).

    Parsing and reinterpreting the words of Ibn Khaldun can be an interesting exercise, but it seems highly likely that Ibn Khaldun believed in evolution. Weather he was the originator of the idea or not, is secondary to the point made by the author of the original post above, that evolutionary ideas were not alien to Muslim scholars and they were not a cause for labeling that particular scholar an apostate (as we experience today).

  7. Pingback: Older Theory of Evolution? | About Islam

  8. Abdullah says:

    Ignorants! in the original arabic text there is no word of “monkey” but the unfaithful translation of what is described as primitive human being showed the word monkey in order to prove with dirty ways the false theory of darwin. And yes, Ibn khaldoun had to read ancien greek books as a part of his good education. But His main inspiration came from Quran. or did those greek books told him also about planets and their trajectories? Ibn khaldoun was discussing in atabic the idea of supreme intelligence (new concept) leading to creation since there can be no random creation if we observe carefully.

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