Defending Darwin from Hoodbhoy - Response to 'Corona — our debt to Darwin'
Updated: Apr 12
News of a heart-warming exchange between a Pakistani air traffic controller and Air India made headlines this week. Indian news outlet NDTV reported on the event, quoting the operator’s words, “we are proud of you”. Isn’t it wonderful that in difficult times even adversaries come together for the common good? This is nothing new: human history is littered with times in which arch enemies put their differences aside; from World War I soldiers coming out of their trenches to play football on Christmas Eve, to mothers and daughter in laws putting on the gimmick of a happy family on Eid.
Soldiers playing soccer in No-Man’s Land during Christmas Truce in 1914. © Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images
It is human to act more humane when there is a greater good at stake. However, Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy has used the current crisis to lash out at Islam once again. One would think he might use his voice in a mainstream Pakistani paper to rally liberals and conservatives to work together in order to fend off the common evil, but that would be beneath him.
Before someone becomes upset with him using such a tragic moment (a time when people are gasping for air and struggling to feed their families) keep in mind that this isn’t as petty as it seems. To be fair to Hoodbhoy, this is not as bad as when he used the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to take a dig at Islam and science. In that piece, Hoodbhoy used Imam Ghazali to drive his point home, amusingly as Asadullah Ali, pointed out, “Hoodbhoy doesn’t explain how one man was capable of destroying an entire civilisation – much less how said man’s supposed aversion to free will and mathematics had anything do with 9/11." After using his physics background to prove the falling of the towers was linked to Islam’s lack of scientific prowess he once again found an opening to show the world his skills. At least in this current article, Hoodbhoy is using a scientific point to raise the issue of Islam’s failure at science, which may be an indication that his arguments are evolving after all – albeit too gradually for even Darwinism to work.
The issue is not just his ridiculing of Islam, but also the collateral damage it has caused. He managed to misrepresent the history of science and make wildly unsubstantiated claims about evolutionary biology. As someone with a background in the philosophy of evolutionary biology, I was less than impressed with Hoodbhoy’s misuse of Darwin. I was approached by several people to write a response to his article, but the idea of giving free education to Hoodbhoy on mistakes that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology would not make, simply wasn’t motivating enough to do so.
However, when Muhammad Umair (pictured above) of Bahria University Karachi messaged, asking me to respond, I conceded out of admiration for him. Muhammad Umair is a young Assistant Professor at the university who has been working tirelessly with his team to make improvised indigenous open-source ventilators for Pakistan. He is a hero to me, along with all others working on towards this noble goal. I am responding now as a digital salute to him and his team, in the hopes that I can also raise awareness of their work (which does need support!). Isn't it ironic that when religious bigots like Muhammad Umair are thinking about science, our Nobel prize winning physicist Hoodbhoy is thinking about religion, I guess people do show their true colours during times of crisis.
For updates on Muhammad Umair’s project and to find out how you can get involved, please visit his profile: https://www.facebook.com/muhammad.umair.7902
Hoodbhoy’s article is not just factually incorrect – it aids anti-scientific attitudes. Here are the claims that Hoodbhoy has made in his piece (some explicitly, others implicitly):
Faith and science are rival and exclusive explanations.
It is hypocritical of people of faith to believe in science.
The foundation of biological science was laid by Charles Darwin.
Darwin invented the principle of selection.
Without Darwinian evolution, we could not understand Covid-19.
Without Darwinian evolution, we could not develop vaccines and other medicines.
Darwinian selection is as fundamental to biology as Newton’s Law is to physics.
Islam makes the claim that all diseases are cured through ajwa dates and black seed oil.
At first sight, it might seem odd that he has managed to make all these claims in an article so short. It should be noted, though, that he does not provide references to the aforementioned claims, nor does he make an argument that is easy to follow. He seems to have confused assertion with argumentation. In fact, even merely for the proper assertion of such arguments, he would have required further elaboration on the points he so freely made.
Before we begin dissecting, it is important for me to clarify the Islamic position on science. Muslims can and do accept and love science: regardless of whether we like a theory or find that it conflicts with our beliefs, we are still able to accept it as a working theory, model and paradigm. In the philosophy of science, this position is formally known as instrumentalism. Even atheist academics who are critical of Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection can accept it from an instrumentalist perspective. The rival camp is known as realism; they believe it’s not just that theories work, but that they work and are true (with a small t). Both camps, however, do not believe science is absolute in any sense of giving us eternal truths.
There are two ways in which I intend to tackle what Hoodbhoy gets wrong: from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I will use Darwin and contemporary biologists; to address what he gets wrong in terms of Islam, I will use the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Hoodbhoyian Science vs. God
Throughout his article, Hoodbhoy pits faith against science. He seems to think faith in God is incompatible with science: “Now the good news: most educated people are beginning to understand why scientific approaches work and unscientific ones don’t. Better still, even ultra-conservative and science-rejecting world leaders are now begging scientists to speed up the rescue work. For all their talks about faith and calls to bang utensils and clap from balconies, they end up pleading for anti-coronavirus vaccines and drugs. Bluff, bluster and bombast have limits.”Of course scientific approaches work and unscientific ones don’t; that is trivial and true. But what is he really trying to say? We know he didn’t simply want to convey this truism for no good reason. Taking into account the context of the 'Faith vs. science' false dichotomy that underlies his article, we see that he believes faith in God is a rival explanation to a scientific one. It is only hard-nosed, materialistic, godless, atheistic science that will find a cure, and it is hypocritical of believers in God to both have faith and also put their hope in scientific solutions. He says as much elsewhere: “A society oriented towards fatalism, or one in which an interventionist deity forms part of the matrix of causal connections, is bound to produce fewer individuals inclined to probe the unknown with the tools of science.” In another instance, he openly blames the rise of faith in universities in having a negative impact on scientific learning: “In 1973 there was not a single female in burqa. Now it is hard to find a woman not wearing burqa or hijab. And of course, that has an enormous impact upon the classroom. You cannot have inquiry in a classroom where there are only burqas and beards.”
He published an article on Richard Dawkins’ site entitled, Is It Science or Theology? (The title is already a giveaway that he is headed in the wrong direction). In the article, he writes, “When Pakistani students open a physics or biology textbook, it is sometimes unclear whether they are actually learning science or, instead, theology. The reason: every science textbook, published by a government-run textbook board in Pakistan, by law must contain in its first chapter how Allah made our world, as well as how Muslims and Pakistanis have created science.” He goes on to add, “Demanding that science and faith be tied together has resulted in national bewilderment and mass intellectual enfeeblement. Millions of Pakistanis have studied science subjects in school and then gone on to study technical, science-based subjects in college and university. And yet most – including science teachers – would flunk if given even the simplest science quiz.” As disconcerting as his statements are, I don’t think even Hoodbhoy believes this sweeping generalisation of the Pakistani education system. The real issue (other than the obvious brown sahib garb he is trying to impress Dawkins with) is that he has committed a category mistake; God is not a rival explanation to science; the two are complementary and distinct and do not overlap. Science is an attempt to apply reason to the natural world to see how it works. God is an explanation of why the world exists in the first place. In other words, explaining how something works does not challenge the idea of that very thing having an ultimate cause. The Quran makes a distinction between the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. Allah says in the Quran: Have they not seen the birds above them expanding (their wings) and contracting (them)? It is only the Lord of Mercy who holds them up: He watches over everything. (Quran, 67:19). The ‘how’ in this verse is the scientific, mechanical explanation of the bird flying, its wings expanding and contracting to generate lift. The ‘why’ is God; God is its creator. These two explanations are mentioned in the same, singular verse and there is no contradiction in accepting them both. Oxford University Professor John Lennox further elaborates upon this distinction in his book ‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’, for anyone interested in exploring it in more detail.
So then belief in God certainly is not a rival explanation to science, and faith in God does not impede scientific inquiry. A lesson may be learned from Ibn Al-Haytham who is considered to be the first modern scientist. Almost 1000 years ago, he wrote the following beautiful words to explain his deep-seated interest in science: “I decided to discover what it is that brings us closer to God, what pleases Him most, and what makes us submissive to His ineluctable Will.” Belief in God does not hinder people from pursuing scientific inquiry; most scientists in history were theists. Even today, there are leading evolutionary biologists like Francis Collins, who happens to be a theist, continuing to pave the way forward for science without denouncing their faith. In the Muslim world, esteemed evolutionary biologists such as the Cambridge academic Dr. Farid Khan (whom I have had the privilege of working with) have no trouble working within the Darwinian paradigm, despite a strong belief in God. In fact, Dr. Khan’s journey to science was actually driven by the Quranic imperative: Whoever saves the life of one human being, it shall be as if he had saved the whole of humankind. (Quran, 67:19).
This talk by Khan was given as part of the iERA educational program (www.iera.org), Khan is a great inspiration to young Muslims, he is of the view that Muslims need to at forefront of science and should be racing to be the first ones to discover a new penicillin! More on Khan here: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/farid-khan-040aaa7
The aforementioned points are enough to challenge the very crux of Hoodbhoy’s article, perhaps rendering my continuation at this point unnecessary, but bear with me. There are some deeper philosophical problems underlying his thinking that must be brought to light, at the very least in the hopes that others may be informed and avoid them. Hoodbhoy taunts believers regarding Darwin: “All beneficiaries of modern medicine should surely forgive Darwin for his supposed transgressions.” What transgressions? one may ask. Many believers (including the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, whom Hoodbhoy also quotes) may say that Darwin’s theory undermines God. This is the transgression that Hoodbhoy enjoys deriding believers with; luring them into the idea that any cures they may enjoy are purely from this heretic who led the world towards the light of atheism, falsely perpetuating the notion that it would be hypocritical to reap the benefits of his theory while also clinging onto belief in God. Darwin would have disagreed with both these claims.
The former claim will be addressed in the next section; for now, let’s focus on the latter. Is it really the case that accepting Darwin’s theory to be true and still holding onto God simultaneously is hypocritical? In stating so, he has fallen prey to the same fallacy that others before him have; namely, the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Science is based on methodological naturalism: the idea that when we look for causation in the universe, we focus strictly on natural causes and effects, not invoking God or anything relating to the supernatural. Philosophical naturalism is the belief that there really is no God or anything supernatural. The latter is a belief that atheists hold, the former is a working assumption governing the scientific process. Methodological naturalism does not entail philosophical naturalism. Evolutionary biologist Scott Todd explains this concept well: “Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic. Of course the scientist, as an individual, is free to embrace a reality that transcends naturalism.” I am not going to blame Hoodbhoy for committing this fallacy. It is more than likely he has been socialised into believing it, as have many others, since the publication of the best-selling book by Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’. Publications seldom create movements and there is no doubt that Dawkins’ book led to the movement of a new firebrand atheism known as ‘New Atheism’. The problem here is that his book popularised the confusion between different types of naturalism. Philosopher of science, Massimo Pigliucci, despite being an open atheist himself, has been vocal about Dawkins’ mistake: “The fallacy lies in the fact that most people – including, alas, prominent science popularisers such as Richard Dawkins – do not make the subtle but crucial distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Naturalism, broadly speaking, is the idea that there is only nature and that the supernatural realm and phenomena do not exist. As a philosophical position, it has a long history of elaboration and debate. Philosophical naturalism, then, is the strong metaphysical position that there is, as a matter of fact, no such thing as the supernatural nor a higher being, which obviously characterises any individual who considers themselves an atheist. Methodological naturalism, however, is a metaphysically more modest claim. It takes the position that while there may be a supernatural realm or being, it does not enter and need not be invoked in any discussions of scientific findings.” Philosopher of biology, Elliot Sober, highlights this problem as well: “For some people Newtonian theory and Darwinian theory suggest there is no God. However, this is not what these theories say; it is a philosophical interpretation that requires additional premises.” For Hoodbhoy to maintain that there is hypocrisy in believing in both God and Darwin’s theory, he has to provide a coherent argument, which he has failed to do. He repeats the same mistake by claiming there is an inconsistency in believing in scientific explanations for natural disasters and diseases while also maintaining belief in God’s will. This error is therefore not a one-off mistake; in fact, he has been consistent in repeating the same narrative in his online videos as well. I am not saying it is impossible for him to argue this case – I’m merely pointing out that he hasn’t made an argument we could assess. I would ask him, again, to not confuse assertion with argumentation.
Hoodbhoy vs. Darwin
There exists a large gap between the public and academic understanding of science. Science uses observations to create and test hypotheses and theories. God, by definition, is a being who is unseen. Therefore, any direct observation of God is impossible. In this manner, anyone making the claim that God is disproven by science is deeply mistaken. Philosopher of science Hugh Gauch explains to “insist that… science supports atheism is to get high marks for enthusiasm but low marks for logic.” Although popularisers like to peddle the idea that evolution somehow disproves God, it is actually an argument that Darwin would have disagreed with. He was never an atheist and it would doubtlessly come as a surprise to him to find his theory being used as an argument against the existence of God. He wrote: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” When the first version of his book, ‘The Origin of Species’ was published, one reviewer wrote something Darwin took to heart. He noted it would be just as noble for God to have created all species individually or create one form of life which evolved into everything else. Darwin was so impressed by these words he included them in the second edition of his book. Darwin continued to believe in God even after he had left Christianity and published his theory. Later in life he became agnostic but it wasn’t, as some may speculate, his theory that led to this change in his beliefs. He wrote: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” The link between atheism and Darwin’s theory is missing and, despite Hoodbhoy’s efforts to implicitly popularise it, it is not one that can be academically justified. On the other hand, it is necessary to remain fair and point out the error that Imran Khan has made in also creating a link between the two. Nick Spencer’s book ‘Darwin and God’ contains a more nuanced discussion on the misconception of Darwin’s atheistic views, in case anyone wishes to further explore the topic. Additionally, I had a discussion with Professor Jeremy Pritchard on this very issue of the misuse of Darwin by popular atheists, which I would recommend viewing as Pritchard, although an atheist, acknowledges the matter.
Now, the issue here is not just that Hoodbhoy tries to subtly link Darwin with atheistic transgression (again, to be fair to him, many others have also tried this), but that he explicitly makes claims about evolutionary theory which would, frankly, embarrass Darwin. After a thorough examination of the article, it may actually be safe to say that Hoodbhoy has not read Darwin or the history of evolution in any detail. In fact, I am certain that he possesses nothing more than a pop understanding of the subject, which was made evident in the following statement from his article: “Thanks to biological science – the foundation of which was laid by Charles Darwin – the coronavirus will eventually turn out to be a deadly but controllable affair.” Such a peasant view of Darwin could be expected of old soviet materialistic literature, leaving one wondering, what on earth is he talking about? Darwin did not lay the foundations of biological science. To give evidence for this would be to belittle the intelligence of the reader. If Hoodbhoy has his doubts on the matter, let him consult any high school science textbook (even a Pakistani government sanctioned one will do). Drugs, vaccines and even the study of pathogens had been explored and utilised before Darwin. Furthermore, evolutionary biology is largely ignored in medicine as the founder of evolutionary medicine, American physician Randolph Nesse, points out: “Evolutionary biology is an essential basic science for medicine, but few doctors and medical researchers are familiar with its most relevant principles. Most medical schools have geneticists who understand evolution, but few have even one evolutionary biologist to suggest other possible applications. The canyon between evolutionary biology and medicine is wide. The question is whether they offer each other enough to make bridge building worthwhile.” On a side note, my dissertation (which is due to be published soon inshaAllah) actually argues in favour of evolutionary thinking in medicine. I think Nesse is spot on and for far too long there has not been a sufficient integration.
Hoodbhoy again shows his misunderstanding of biological evolution by claiming that we could not deal with the evolution of viruses without Darwin’s theory, as he says, “Without Darwinian selection one can’t even begin to understand microbial-host interaction, the evolution of pathogens, or start developing drugs and vaccines. So go ahead and blame Darwin for inventing the notion that only the fittest survive.” Here, he has simply confused Darwinism with evolution, falling for the fallacy of equivocation. Of course, it is possible to understand virus evolution without Darwin. There is a clear distinction between evolution and Darwin’s theory of evolution (also known as Darwinism). On a public level, these terms are often thought to be interchangeable (so Hoodbhoy should not be blamed) – academically, they are not. Evolution and Darwinism are distinct; as a matter of fact, the concept of non-Darwinian evolution also exists and has actually been the subject matter of academic books such as ‘The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution’. So what is the difference between the two? Evolution, as a general concept, means ‘biological change over time’ and has been known, written, documented and theorised about for at least three thousand years. References to biological change over time can be found in documents traced back to ancient civilisations ranging from ancient China to the ancient Brahmans in India and the ancient Greeks. But there is a difference between generally believing in biological change over time – which is an undeniable observation – and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Half a century before the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’, a French biologist named Jean Baptiste Lamarck published a comprehensive theory of evolution comprised of two distinct parts; a history of evolution and a mechanism of evolution. The history of evolution involved multiple endless origins of life with parallel lines of evolution taking place, and a mechanism of inheriting acquired characteristics. Darwin, in 1859, published another theory of evolution which was different to that of Lamarck’s. Its history involved a total paradigm shift; instead of multiple lines of parallel evolution, he highlighted the concept of only one origin, a tree of life and the mechanism of natural selection.
A group of evolutionary biologists that challenge Darwinian theory have brought forward a project known as the ‘Third Way of Evolution’. The project comprises of biologists from North America and Europe, and extends as far as China. These biologists stem from such prestigious universities as Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard and MIT. They explain their stance as: “The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.” These biologists clearly need guidance from Hoodbhoy as they blasphemously think evolutionary theory can work without Neo-Darwinism.
Following is a brief exploration of three evolutionary alternatives to Darwinian evolution:
Evolution by Natural Genetic Engineering (ENGE)
According to the standard Darwinian theory, randomness of mutations is the clay that natural selection moulds into all sorts of novel species. Though the concept has been explored in numerous popular publications and documentaries, some evolutionary theorists claim there is a lack of evidence for random mutations making anything useful. One such biologist is James Shapiro, who challenges this central pillar of Darwinism, by using contemporary research in mutations to make a completely new evolutionary paradigm. In ‘Evolution: A View from the 21st Century’, Shapiro explains why ENGE may be a better model than Darwinian Evolution.
Neo Lamarckian Evolution
Although Lamarck was largely overlooked for a long time, biologists have recently begun to revisit his ideas and developed a revised theory under the name of Neo Lamarckian evolution. Proponents of this theory argue that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is what drives evolutionary change, citing recent studies to support their view. Neo Lamarckian evolution views the process in terms of rapid evolutionary transitions instead of slow, incremental changes. Evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka outlines this alternative view in her book, ‘Transformations of Lamarckism.’
Mutation Driven Evolution
Mutationism also opposes the theory of small incremental steps, instead assuming evolution to be driven by large mutations. This mechanism challenges the idea of Darwinian gradualism and natural selection as the driving forces behind evolutionary change. Although mutationism was, for the most part, discarded several years ago, a rehashed version has been proposed recently by evolutionary biologist Masatoshi Nei, who is a well-known, respected and award winning scientist. His work in the field of population genetics has been used widely and his book, ‘Mutation Driven Evolution’ shows how developments in molecular biology are challenging Darwinian predictions, further elaborating on how a new alternative may work.
Allow me to clarify an important point; I did not mention these alternative evolutionary models to argue in their favour. Rather, my intention is to simply convey how it is possible, and coherent, to understand the evolution of viruses without Darwin. When considering Hoodbhoy’s understanding of the matter, one is forced to conclude that not only has he not read Darwin but perhaps he has not read the works of his mentor the 'right honorable gentleman' Sir Richard Dawkins, as the latter explicitly states the possibility of evolutionary science continuing without Darwin: “We must acknowledge the possibility that new facts may come to light which will force our successors of the twenty-first century to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition.” It gets worse; Hoodbhoy not only misunderstands the difference between evolution and Darwinism, but he has also not managed to grasp what the concept of Darwinian selection really is. Darwin did not ‘invent’ the idea of survival of the fittest; it had been known and documented since ancient times. Almost 2000 years ago, Empedocles noted that nature generates a large variety of organisms randomly, of which only those who manage to provide for themselves and reproduce successfully persist. Throughout history, thinkers have explored and developed the idea of the fittest surviving and that in nature, organisms struggle for existence. Had Hoodbhoy read the ‘Origin of Species’, he would have known that Darwin acknowledges those who theorised on the matter before him and even explicitly mentions contemporaries such as Edward Blyth, who developed ideas on selection. What makes Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (who Hoodbhoy did not mention) unique is that they both arrived independently at the conclusion that natural selection is not just a process of filtering, but a major creative force. To understand these nuances and other important historical evolutionary developments, I would recommend Stephen J Gould’s excellent book, ‘The Structure of Evolutionary Theory’. Anyone who indulges in the careful examination of theories of evolution proposed throughout history, would see it is evident that selection may very well be utilised under non-Darwinian evolutionary models, as well as applied to the study of viruses, despite claims to the contrary that Hoodbhoy has so ardently made. Even if Darwin was the only person who came up with selection and all the other developments (which he credited to others), this still would not support Hoodbhoy's claim that it is hypocritical for theists to utilize his theory to tackle viruses. In the same way it is not hypocritical for atheists to rely on science even though historically it was a theistic invention.
Hoodbhoy vs. Islam
Over the years, Hoodbhoy has revealed an open animosity towards Islam. It is no secret that he openly challenges and mocks Islam and Muslims. A clear example of this is evident in his discussion with the Muslim public intellectual Hamza Tzortzis.
Now, the aim of this article is not to challenge him on his hatred of Islam. On the contrary, I merely want him to commit to the same scientific spirit that Darwin and those before and after him have exhibited. Scientists are supposed to be committed to working toward the common good; science being a common denominator for people of varying beliefs, values and cultures. In attempting to confine science within the bounds of naturalism, misrepresenting Darwinian evolution and attacking Islam, Hoodbhoy is only fuelling anti-scientific behaviour.
Hoodbhoy claims that Muslims have spread the virus by not following basic scientific guidelines. On principle I find myself agreeing with him in the sense that no one should be carrying out any actions that could further the spread of Covid-19. If Hoodbhoy was sincere in his attempts to warn of the virus, he could have pointed out that Islam recommends quarantining, instead of attacking Muslims and blaming their faith in black seed oil and prayer. Having lived in a Muslim country for so many years, has he not heard the hadith: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.” The dissemination of such information may have helped in improving the situation and would be more likely to positively influence the behaviour of the aforementioned Muslims. It is also important to question his singling out of the Muslims when there are plenty of non-religious people who are churning out anti-scientific conspiracy theories linked to 5G and attending secular events such as matches, conferences and weddings even after the outbreak of the virus. Why does he consistently turn a blind eye on the secular community, pointing fingers only at religion and accusing religious people of being anti-scientific? Hoodbhoy should know better than to make such accusations, as the adage goes: pointing one finger has three pointing back at you. Over the years, his fellow atheist socialists have shown resistance to science and promoted pseudoscience. It should not be this difficult for Hoodbhoy to acknowledge that secular atheists can deny science in the same way that some Muslims can, so perhaps it is time to retire the card of portraying only all religious people as anti-scientific. Hoodbhoy’s attempts to vilify Islam are, to some extent, rather amusing to witness. His favourite way of mocking Islam appears to be through the proxy of Moulvis. In this case, he quotes Maulana Tariq Jameel on the subject of the virus. Since I am not aware of the exact words the Maulana used, I will go along with Hoodbhoy’s rendition of the situation, in which the Maulana said that all diseases, including Covid-19, can be cured with Ajwa dates. Hoodbhoy says, “On our side of the border we have yet to order a shipload of Ajwa-Khajoor (dates from Ajwa in Saudi Arabia) touted as a cure for all diseases by Maulana Tariq Jameel, Pakistan’s most popular preacher and a staunch Imran Khan ally. Nor is the government arranging sacrifices of a million kala bakras or mass importing olive oil and kalonji.” To put it lightly, this is nonsense. The beliefs perpetuated and mocked here are exaggerated and out of touch with reality. The classical scholarly understanding is that some medicines such as black seed oil, Ajwa dates and honey, should be used on a regular basis for general health; however, this is supposed to be in addition to a search for individual cures to particular diseases. In other words, these prophetic medicines are complementary, not exclusive, of other medicines.
If any one of these was truly believed to be the cure for all diseases, then the Prophet (peace be upon him) would not have encouraged the search for cures for diseases as explicitly as he did: “Seek treatment, O servants of God, for Allah did not create a disease except that He created for it a cure.” In another narration, he added, “Whoever knows it, knows it, and whoever does not know it, does not know it.” If Ajwa dates or black seed oil were to cure all diseases including the plague, why was this not known by the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Consider the following incident: Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) went out to Syria until he arrived at Sargh. The commanders of the army, Abu ‘Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah and his companions, met him and told him that an epidemic had befallen the land of Syria. Umar announced to the people, “I will turn back in the morning, so you must as well.” Abu ‘Ubaydah said, “Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?” Umar responded, “Would that another had said so, O Abu ‘Ubaydah! Yes, we are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah. Do you not see that if you had camels descending in a valley with two fields, one of the fertile and the other barren, you would graze in the fertile field by the decree of Allah or you would graze in the barren field by the decree of Allah?” Why, if Hoodbhoy’s view of medicine in Islam is to be believed, did Umar (RA) not turn around and inform his army that the plague could be defeated simply using ajwa dates or black seed oil or honey? The answer is clear: he and the other companions understood that each disease has a cure and Allah heals whom He wills. This is certainly not the first time that Hoodbhoy has made a strawman argument, proceeded to knock it down and seemed quite pleased with the outcome – and it doesn’t seem like it will be the last.
Attacking Islam, alongside Muslims and their practices and beliefs, has been a part of Hoodbhoy’s narrative for well over three decades (see his book, ‘Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality). In spite of this longstanding commitment, the arguments even then were not his own; he has been recycling orientalist fables that paint Islamic creed as incompatible with science and propagating the idea that Islam was not the cause of scientific progress in the Muslim world. Despite the fact that both of these claims have been thoroughly debunked (see Asadullah Ali’s article on the matter), Hoodbhoy has not stopped repeating them.
It may be proposed that Hoodbhoy needs to embrace the findings of evolutionary psychology. Even if he believes religions are false, he needs to question the reason behind their persistence. According to the evolutionary process, truth has no intrinsic value; it matters not whether a belief is true or false, rather if it serves to enhance our evolutionary fitness. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that religion survives due to its adaptive value, in that it reduces stress, increases life expectancy, increases reproductive success and social cohesion. In the words of evolutionary psychologist Bret Weinstein, “religion is literally false but metaphorically true.” There is irony in the paradox, then, that Hoodbhoy wants to attack religious people for denying natural selection when it is the very reason why they deny it in the first place. As a philosopher of biology Alex Rosenberg points out: “The hypothesis that organised religion has adaptive functions for people and groups is backed up by a fair amount of evolutionary human biology. It couldn’t have done so except through the false beliefs it inculcates. Of course, all the religious beliefs that natural selection foisted on people made acquiring scientific truths about the world much more difficult.” Hoodbhoy needs to adopt Darwin’s pragmatic, scientific spirit of working with those who hold opposing views even if they are from the opposing theological spectrum; Asa Grey and Darwin had cordial, friendly working relationship, despite the differences in their belief in God, with Grey being a firm Bible-believing Christian. Hoodbhoy, similarly, should not attack Islam and instead recognise its adaptive value. It would be beneficial for him to work with the likes of Muhammad Umair to save lives during this difficult time, instead of attacking people for beliefs they hold by design of natural selection. Don't attack Muhammad Umair for his religious views and scientific work, he is genetically determined to help save lives, in-fact this is not due him selfishly wanting to increase his inclusive fitness, rather his behaviour is probably better explained by the Neo-Darwinian idea of reciprocal altruism. Hoodbhoy's behaviour is maladaptive but it is not contagious (though self-isolation is still recommended), Umair and other religious bigots will keep working and I hope this article makes them happy. Happiness after-all is a proximate mechanism to help us with our evolutionary goal, the goal that Dawkins calls the ultimate rationale of human life, the preservation of our genes. So things come full circle, I too have contributed to the saving of lives, I hope so anyway.
So what did Hoodbhoy get right? Well there is good news and bad news, bad news first, he got evolution wrong, history wrong, philosophy of biology wrong, Darwinism wrong and Islam wrong, now the good news, we should take comfort in knowing he got something right: “Bluff, bluster and bombast have limits.” Indeed!
May Allah bless the soul of the martyr Dr Osama Riaz who despite his Pakistani education managed to do a fine job, you make us all proud Osama, you did well indeed.
 Steffens, B., Ibn al-Haytham: first scientist, 2007.
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