THE other day I had the privilege of examining the fossilised skeleton of Australopithicus Sediba, a 12-year old male who had passed away nearly 2 million years ago.
Unearthed by Professor Lee Burger of Wits University in a cave at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site near Johannesburg, this young lad and his mother had accidentally fallen into a crevice when Africa was still Gondwanaland.
I’m sure they couldn’t have predicted the fuss their tragic demise would cause.
Mother and son are probably the most remarkable ancient hominid remains ever found in Africa. And as I stood admiring the fragmented skeleton of Sediba junior on display at Cape Town’s Iziko museum, I could see clearly that he had long arms like an ape, but an advanced pelvis and short hands.
His skull, still half-embedded in rock, was strangely human. Indeed, I didn’t feel that I was looking at a pre-historic ape. But what was I looking at?
Scientists, of course, have begun to speculate whether they’ve found a new transitional human species between Mrs. Ples or the Peking man – in other words, a missing link in the broken chain of human evolution.
But for me, as I stood looking at the youthful, fossilised Sediba, there was a question-mark. I’m not a scientist, but this exciting find didn’t convince me that I’d descended from an ape. The massive evolutionary leap that has to be made – particularly with regards to human supra-consciousness – is just too much.
Nevertheless, it did not stop me from wondering what sort of conversation, divine awareness or physical skills the Australopithicus Sediba’s could have had. How had they resigned themselves to death in the darkness of the crevice they had accidentally fallen into so many aeons ago?
Had words of pain, sorrow and prayer – or animistic sounds of fear – escaped their lips?
What about the shaggy Neanderthals, what about the Cro-Magnon trogoldytes of about 50, 000 years ago? Who exactly were these ape-like hominids, or hominid-like apes? Like dead men they tell no tales.
They lumbered across the face of primeval earth and then disappeared into extinction like the dinosaur. No stone carvings, no cave drawings and no oral traditions. Their historical silence is one of absolute sterility.
Yet Allah in the Qur’an explicitly states that he gave man speech (55: 33). And every speaking nation on earth has, without fail, left behind a richly remembered legacy. Interestingly, whilst all ancient traditions mention a Creative Being, none talk about humans as apes.
On the other hand, it’s much easier to defend the idea of evolution for the animal species. They do adapt and evolve on the ground, but human consciousness is something else entirely– a quantum leap on the so-called evolutionary scale well beyond laboratory chimpanzees struggling to spell “banana”.
Charles Darwin was on to something in the animal kingdom, but definitely not the human species.
Nonetheless, if one looks at the tangible world – the dunya – from a Qur’anic perspective, there are tantalising descriptions of the origins of the universe, the platform of human existence. There are also allusions to the unseen world – the ghaib – which balances the observable cosmos, as anti-matter might do to matter.
Heaven and earth (20: 31) are described as “one” until they’re “rent asunder”. And in the same verse, “water” is described as the building block of Creation. In some verses, planets are said to “swim” in their orbits, and in others that they’ll “run their courses”.
This is a most convincing argument for the hypothesis of an expanding universe, a universe that is dynamic in movement “all governed by His laws” (7: 54) from its stars right down to the last microscopic particle on earth.
As for the unseen, we’re told that God created a parallel universe populated by jinn (15: 26), a shadowy species composed of fire. We’re informed of the Angels, also unseen, and through Prophetic tradition of matters of the barzakh – the intermediate, ghostly realm between death and judgment – and of the Final Reckoning itself.
Whilst many may regard the above as a matter of faith, one just has to point to the challenges of contemporary physics. Indeed, as Einstein would probably argue today: E is no longer MC².
Qur’anically, man’s creation is a specially demarcated event (15: 28). And the “mud” mentioned in the verse can only refer to DNA. Then there is the specific reference to Adam, the first man (or the Father of Muhammad as he is known), being created from one person and his mate (Eve) having been created “of like nature” (7: 189).
No mention of a rib here. But what is the distinctive essence of man? The gnostic Shaikhs will most likely argue that it’s nur, or spiritual light. This light is knowledge, a light that not even the sun can extinguish.
In other words, it’s Revelation, a “light manifest” (4: 174) that travelled through the backbone of Adam right up until the last prophet on earth, Muhammad (s).
But when did Adam first arrive on earth? The parable of the tree in Islam does not point to original sin, but human forgetfulness. In the Islamic milieu, a person is born on their fitrah – their primordial innocence.
Space does not permit us to discuss Divine Destiny, but in any case, its mansions of meaning have never been specific about time. In the Qur’an the Arabic word “yaum” (or day) can also mean a long time. For example, it’s safe to assume that the “six days” of Creation described in the Qur’an could equally refer to ages.
In fact, it looks as if we will probably never really know the exact historical date of our appearance on earth.
Prophet Muhammad (s) never dated Adam’s birth other than saying that our ancestor was created on a Friday; that he came to earth on a Friday, that he was granted Grace on a Friday and that he passed away on a Friday.
And, in another tradition, the Prophet was also believed to have said that the world would end on a Friday. But which Friday? Suffice it to say, that like our day of creation, God alone knows.