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13 August 2007

The Muslim view of the Grand Canyon

In Salon (the article is free to read, non-members need to sit through an advert) today, Steve Paulson interviews Turkish physicist Taner Edis, the author of "An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam" on the state of science in the Muslim world. What is interesting is not that the religious culture that gave modern science (among other things) algebra and the number zero has become a scientific backwater but how much the Muslim world's fundamentalists have in common with the Christianity's fundamentalists on scientific issues:

SP: Is the critique of Darwinism basically the same as what you'd find from American creationists?

TE: Much of the rhetoric is similar. There are only so many ways you can argue against evolution, only so many ways you can say the fossil record doesn't tell you what the biologists say. But there are also differences. For example, in American creationist circles, one of the stronger options is "Young Earth creationism." People who read the Book of Genesis literally believe in a creation that happened 10,000 years ago, literally done in six days. But the Quran is much vaguer about the time frame of divine action. Therefore, they are not as committed to fitting earth history into thousands of years. So Muslim creationists are almost invariably "Old Earth creationists." They tend to think of Noah's flood as a local event -- not such a big thing -- unlike the American creationists who think of the flood as the major geological event in earth history. So there are lots of differences that adapt creationism to the Islamic context.

Reading this made me flash back on one of my last trips to the Grand Canyon, when I was explaining the geologic history of the canyon to a non-scientist friend. A guy walked up to me, out of the blue, to tell me that the story I was telling was completely wrong, because the Bible tells us that the Canyon and all of the rocks were formed in the Great Flood. That guy is backed by the western world's most visible religious fundamentalists, so mainstream that even Al Gore famously waffled on Darwin during the 2000 campaign.

Yet for all the disagreements I might have with a Muslim fundamentalist about science (or about many other things) he wouldn't have had any serious problems with the standard scientific explanation for the formation of the Grand Canyon (at least until I got to the part about what fossil evidence tells us about evolution in the Paleozoic).

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