EVOLUTION (takāmol, taḥawwol), a family of ideas embodying the belief that the physical universe and living organisms have developed in a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler to a higher, more complex state. A variety of mythological and speculative ideas of evolution appear in ancient Chinese, Indian, and Iranian cultures, in Greek philosophy, and in Islamic and Persian philosophy and mysticism. However, a scientifically credible theory of evolution of living organisms based on natural selection, the survival and reproduction of those species best adapted to the environment, was first set forth in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species. The Darwinian theory has been challenged, inter alia, by Christian and Muslim theologians believing in the creation theory of the universe. In the present article some of the mystical and philosophical ideas of evolution in Islamic and Persian thought and the dissemination of the modern theory of biological evolution in Persia will be discussed.


Mystical ideas of evolution. The doctrine of universal progress was adopted by Persian mystics and philosophers from Platonic and neo-Platonic ideas according to which the universe is a completed hierarchy or chain which evolves from material substances (water, earth, fire, and air) to living organisms, to human beings, and finally to the “perfect man” (ensān-e kāmel; q.v.). Mawlānā Jalāl-al-Dīn Rūmī is among the first of the mystics to express this conception of the progressive evolution of the great chain of being (Maṯnawī III, pp. 3904, 4115, 4180; Serr-e nay, no. 312, 313). This idea appears also in the works of other Persian mystics, including Ebn Yamīn Faryūmadī (q.v.; Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia III, pp. 216-17), Fayż Kāšānī (q.v.; word nos. 63, 65), Ṣafī-ʿAlī-Šāh (q.v.; pp. 160-68). Some scholars suggest an untenable view that Mawlānā anticipated the Darwinian conception of organic evolution (Abdol Hakim, chap. 2), and even the Hegelian notion of a dialectical process in the progressive unfolding of spirit in the development of the universe and humanity (Ṭabarī, p. 296).

Philosophical ideas of evolution. Evolutionary ideas appear in the works of a number of Persian and Muslim philosophers. Bīrūnī, for example, alludes to the idea of the evolution of beings in his Jamāher fī maʿrefat al-jawāher (p. 80; Naṣr, pp 208-9), but the view that he anticipated the idea of evolution in his India (chap. 47; see Raĭnov, p. 62) seems untenable (Willenzynski, p. 192). Khalifa Abdul Hakim (chap. 2) suggests that the Muʿtazilite Abū Esḥāq Ebrāhīm b. Sayyār Naẓẓām’s idea of komūn waẓohūr (“latency and emergence”; see Wolfson, p. 499) is related to the idea of evolution of beings. Apparently, Naẓẓām’s idea was influenced by Empedocles’ notion of love and strife—that the four basic elements (earth, water, air, and fire), which are the roots of all things, interact under the influence of two cosmic forces, love and strife, the forces of attraction and repulsion which are agents in the mixture of the four elements (Diels, p. 17; Šahrastānī, pp. 261-62).

The Eḵwān al-Ṣafāʾ (q.v.; in al-Resāla al-sābeqa) subscribed to the idea that man developed out of the course of evolution from physical elements to plants and animals in the world of nature and that he has the ability to further evolve to the level of higher spiritual beings in the world of metaphysics. Influenced by the Eḵwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Abū ʿAlī Meskawayh and Ṣadr-al-Dīn Šīrāzī (qq.v.) developed this idea into a theory of the evolutionary and progressive movement of beings (al-Fawz, pp. 78-83; al-Asfār VI, p. 6; Majmūʿa VII, p. 73; Sajjādī, p. 198). Some scholars suggest that the ideas of the Eḵwān al-Ṣafā and Meskawayh had anticipated Darwin’s theory of evolution (Dietrici, pp. 78, 83; cf. Šeblī Noʿmānī, p. 108). Their views, however, were speculative proto-evolutionism, and as such differed from the modern scientific theory of evolution.


Darwinian theory. In 1287/1870, Mīrzā Taqī Khan Anṣārī, a physician and instructor at Dār al-fonūn (q.v.), discussed Darwin’s theory in his unpublished work, Jānevar-nāma, (Ādamīyat, pp. 24-26). Meanwhile, a vulgarized version of the theory was disseminated into religious circles through translation of short commentaries published in Arabic journals. From the beginning, the Darwinian theory aroused bitter opposition from the ʿolamāʾ as contradictory to the Koran on two grounds: first, it was considered as a negation of the doctrine of the direct creation of the universe and all beings by God; and second, it expounded the idea that human beings had descended not from an historical Adam created by God but from remote, pre-human, ape-like ancestors. Sayyed Jamāl-al-Dīn Asadābādī’s Resāla-ye radd bar neyčerīya (Hydarabad, 1881; see AFḠĀNĪ) was one of the first attacks on the theory by the ʿolamāʾ, and it shows that the author was not familiar with the scientific substance of Darwinian theory. The reception of Darwin’s theory during the course of the Constitutional Revolution (q.v.), at the turn of 20th century, was mixed. Mīrzā Naʿīm Sedehī, for example, pejoratively, labeled it hekmat-e kalbī (cynicism; Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia IV, p. 198), but it was well received as a scientific theory by others (Bahar, Dīvān I, p. 660). Despite the objection of the ʿolamāʾ, Darwinian theory has been incorporated into the curriculum of biology courses and textbooks of modern schools since the early 20th century. The first translation of On the Origin of Species (by ʿA. Šawqī) appeared in Tehran in 1318 Š./1939; and a commentary on Darwin’s theory (Dārvīn čeh mīgūyad) by Maḥmūd Behzād was published in Rašt in 1323 Š./1944. Furthermore, a brief critical review of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Spencer’s theory of social Darwinism was presented by Shaikh Abu’l-Ḥasan Šaʿrānī (pp. 22, 24) and Moḥammad ʿAlī Forūḡī (II, p. 310-15).


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(based on a longer article by ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn ZarrĪnkūb)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: January 20, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. IX, Fasc. 1, pp. 86-87

Cite this entry:

EIr (based on a longer article by ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn ZarrĪnkūb), “EVOLUTION,” Encyclopædia Iranica, IX/1, pp. 86-87; available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/evolution (accessed online at 20 January 2012).