The controversy over the new textbooks distributed among schoolchildren in line with the introduction of a new curriculum refuses to die down. Alongside the embarrassing episode that exposed plagiarism in a Class 7 textbook, causing the editors and authors into issuing an apology, there have been persistent complaints that are more germane to the debate on the rejigged curriculum itself.

Some members of the alem-ulema community have objected to the inclusion of the theory of evolution in the curriculum, in the Class Six Social Science and Class 9 Science/Biology textbooks. They were joined this week by Golam Kibria Tipu, a Jatiya Party lawmaker from Barisal-3, who stood on the floor of parliament and said it is an anti-religious propaganda that humans 'came from monkeys'.

Before we go further, we should be very clear on our position that there should be no opposition to teaching natural selection and Darwin's theory of evolution in schools. Having it in the Class 6 Social Science book, when there is a separate Science module, might seem a bit misplaced. But the Class 9 Science or Biology book, where it appears again, sounds about right. What you cannot do is exclude it from the curriculum altogether, as the alem-ulema are demanding, on the basis of a vehemently bigoted interpretation of what Islam says regarding the origin of our species.

Whenever one hears it, clearly it's the crudely expressed idea of having 'descended from monkeys' that jars with their sensibilities, and energises them to shut it down by clinging to selective interpretation of the relevant Quranic texts. This caricature of the process may well be deliberate, designed to appeal to our inherent chauvinism, especially with regards to monkeys. Nevermind that the theory doesn't even say that. That, mixed in with the dangerously ignorant views on what is a scientific theory, sprouted these days by some of the new generation of alems, including deliberate misrepresentation of its place in the scientific framework underlying our understanding of biological systems in the world today (such as that it is a 'discredited' theory), makes it imperative to call out this opposition for what it is: insecure, dishonest, and no matter how much they may pretend otherwise, ignorant.

The fact is that despite the ulemas' interpretations of the verses dealing with man's creation, there is nothing in the Quran that categorically rules out evolution. Not one verse. There is however one Sahi Hadith (Bukhari) that even acknowledges that the earliest humans, in fact the Prophet Adam himself, looked very different from you and I - in particular, that they were vastly bigger. But it would be wrong to get bogged down in the specifics. What it reflects more powerfully, is that early Islamic thought did allow for the idea that human beings went through massive physiological changes to arrive at the stage they did.

While on a quest to uncover pre-Darwinian scholarship on evolution/natural selection, James Higham, a professor at New York University, uncovered no less than eight Muslim scholars who espoused similar theories during the Golden Age of Islam, including heavyweight names of Islamic history like Ibn Khaldun and Al Beruni. But most Muslim countries do restrict the teaching of evolution today, in the wake of the Islamic Revivalist movement of the 20th century, from which many countries emerged in a much more dogmatic vein. Under an avowedly secular government today, Bangladesh has a choice: it can choose the way of reason, or that of dogma. To us, it is clear what the choice should be.

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