Harun Yahya’s Islamic Creationism: What It Is and Isn’t
The works published under the name Harun Yahya promote “Islamic creationism.” A closer look at their internal logic reveals that their appeal lies in their capacity to mimic science.
Creationism has gone global, and in the Muslim world, it is mainly associated with one pen name: Harun Yahya. Behind this pseudonym, which evokes the Prophets Aaron and John, is a whole enterprise whose public face is the Turkish writer, religious leader, and TV personality Adnan Oktar (born in 1956 in Ankara).1
Already in his twenties, while studying philosophy and interior architecture design, Oktar identified the idea of biological evolution with the utmost expression and root of contemporary antireligious materialism and came to the fore as an anti-Darwinist religious preacher. In 1986, he was charged with promoting a theocratic revolution and served nineteen months in jail. This was the first of a long series of legal troubles. Oktar, who eventually dropped his studies, managed to gather around himself a group of students from well-off families. Such a group gradually took on the form of a sect, whose activities and internal dynamics repeatedly came to the attention of Turkish authorities.
To date, Oktar’s biography includes episodes of hospitalization in a psychiatric institution, several imprisonments and indictments for possession of cocaine, sexual harassment, and blackmailing of collaborators. Oktar himself makes no secret or mystery about this. In interviews and presentations on his websites he is described as extraordinary and outstandingly devout while his troubles are described as either the result of the occult agencies he boldly fights against or as God’s tests that Oktar patiently endures.2
Harun Yahya’s productivity is likewise outstanding. Up to and including fall 2013, almost 300 books in Turkish have been published under his name, more than 200 of which have been translated into English. Yahya’s articles in Turkish listed on his official website number more than 2,000, and his English publications reach approximately 1,500. Translations are available in sixty languages, all widely advertised through more than 150 constantly updated websites. Oktar is unlikely to have written (or read) all of Yahya’s works. Their original nucleus is produced by a team whereas the translations are commissioned to, or more probably spontaneously carried out by, sympathizers the world over.3
Harun Yahya’s works are written in plain language, they are highly repetitive, and seem to mainly be composed using a bold copy-paste technique, with a system of quotations somewhat below any acceptable standard of scholarship. The books are indeed sprinkled with de-contextualized quotations from major scientists along with more controversial figures, no distinction being made between the respective intellectual profiles.
It is difficult to catch a glimpse of the real dimensions, sources, and reach of the enterprise. In 1990, Oktar founded the Scientific Research Foundation (SRF). The Foundation for Protection of National Values (FPNV) followed in 1995. The goal of the SRF, whose website boasts the organization of more than 2,600 scientific events in Turkey and abroad, is the “...establishment of a worldwide living environment that is dominated by peace, tranquility [sic] and love”; it is principally devoted to the defense of creationism. FPNV instead seems more focused on Turkish issues. However, their real extent and connections, besides official statements, can only be estimated. Yahya must have powerful foes and friends alike. Telling attributes in this regard are not only his immense output, intense marketing, and massive free distribution (which presuppose huge financial backing), but also the pressure that he was able to exert on several occasions on the Turkish government in order to block websites perceived as hostile, like Richard Dawkins’s official one in 2008.4
Yahya has apparently discovered not only the secret for uninterrupted productivity but also a source of fabulous wealth. These royalties are not a result of his publications, though: all books indeed, besides being materially available in glossy, full-illustrated editions, can be downloaded for free in different formats from his websites. This extraordinary diffusion already renders extremely likely that any bookstore goer or Internet user interested in Islam and science bumps, sooner or later, into one of the texts associated with his name. However, in 2007 Yahya even preempted the curiosity of potential readers when he sent the gigantic and luxurious first tome of his Atlas of Creation (complete with 768 glossy pages and images in lenticular printing on the hard cover that create an illusion of motion), unsolicited and free of charge, to natural science teachers, research institutions, and libraries throughout Europe and North America. The second volume followed in 2013.5
Despite his dubious reputation in his home country, his extravagant TV appearances (some of which have become viral YouTube clips—especially those where he flirts with heavily made-up young women), and the shortcomings of his books from a scholarly point of view, Oktar/Yahya still enjoys worldwide respect by readers who are either unaware of his whimsicality or do not give any importance to it. In 2010, Yahya was selected among the top 500 most influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies center in Jordan.
According to Yahya, Darwinian evolutionist doctrines are the source and least common denominator of all the violent and repressive phenomena of the last century, such as terrorism and totalitarianisms (communism and fascism alike), all rejected on a par with racism, romanticism, capitalism, Buddhism, and Zionism (which after flirting with Holocaust denial in the 1990s he explicitly distinguishes from Judaism). He claims that they received constant support throughout the millennia by freemasonry, whose agency he describes as the principal occult actor of history in all its anti-religious manifestations. Yahya sees in Darwin the major advocate of evolutionism, however he claims as well that evolutionist doctrines date back even to ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Yahya rejects Darwinism following a double-track criticism: on the one hand he points out its moral consequences, whose disastrous effects he envisages in history. On the other hand he claims that Darwinism lacks scientific proof.
Despite the common polemical target, Yahya refuses to identify his position with that of the advocates of “intelligent design,” due to the fact that they do not make explicit reference to Allah; moreover, he thinks the very reference to a “design” limits the concept of divinity, but he agrees that Earth is millions of years old.
Against the evils that affect contemporary society, Yahya endorses an ecumenical and messianic form of Islam based on a return to religious values that have their symbols and examples in the Prophets. According to Yahya, the time of the coming of a last prophet or Mahdi is near; he will appear and begin his activity in Turkey, the country that Yahya considers endowed with moral superiority and therefore apt to take up the leading role in an Islamic union. It is to be remarked that, despite refusing to explicitly identify with the Mahdi, Yahya constantly describes him in a way that curiously fits his own profile.
Yahya constantly celebrates nature, which is lavishly illustrated in his books, and describes natural phenomena as “miracles.” In this sense, the whole universe is, as the title of one of his books recites, A Chain of Miracles. Yahya regards all the features and elements of the universe as clear proof of the existence of God. According to Yahya, everything in the universe is necessary, which means necessarily made for human life and, conversely, necessarily pointing toward the existence of God. Yahya usually describes these phenomena in plain language, further enriches the description with some schemes full of numerical data, and sprinkles the description with Qur’anic quotations and with passages from prominent scientists. The line of argumentation is always one and the same: If the phenomenon in question would not exist, life would not exist either—therefore God exists and he is good.
Especially over the past two years, Oktar seems to have further intensified his initiatives and diversified his contributions as an opinion-maker in public debates by engaging in different topics: he runs and appears on a television channel, specifically in a long chat show where he sits with men and women whose beauty he emphatically praises,6 discussing politics and world affairs; his website voices his statements about pan-Islamic unity, Turkish nationalism, and, more recently, building bridges with Israel. However, if we consider the ambition expressed by the initiative of sending out the tomes of the Atlas of Creation to institutions all over the world, and the general appeal of all such discussions to different audiences, it seems safe to assume that the most relevant aspect (that is, the one most likely to endure and to entice a global audience) of Yahya’s production is his creationism.
What are the reasons behind the appeal of Yahya’s creationism? They must be most probably identified in the stylistic features of his works. In such works, God’s existence (and hence faith) are taken as the object of a structured, “rational” argumentation within which proof is given and discussed. The books are written in a style that mimics scientific popularization with, for instance, quotations from scientists, usage of schemata and “data,” footnotes (albeit incomplete ones), and so forth. More important, the discussion targets the famous (and famously connected to science) doctrine of Darwinism as its antagonist; it is apparently discussed on a footing of equality with experts by criticizing it, offering “proof,” asking for counterproof, and so on. Yahya takes proof as the “facts” of the “natural world” that are presented as what natural sciences examine or are constituted of. Such “facts” fuse, and practically end up coinciding with, the graphic representation of facts that constitutes a “hyper-reality” in which the verbal discussion is inscribed. The pictures are doctored and assembled in order to enhance their visual appeal. The beauty with which they are then conceptually associated in the verbal part of the discourse becomes itself a “fact” that is used as “proof.”7
All these are common strategies in marketing. They are deployed whenever a shampoo is advertised referring to its “pH,” or the virtues of a toothpaste are exalted in an advertisement with an actor playing a dentist in a white coat, although both the shampoo and the toothpaste might well be advertised by referring to equally pleasant but less “scientific sounding” qualities such as scent and taste, respectively. Moreover they can often be detected in new religions, especially as a proselytizing, ice-breaking strategy. For instance, it is a common experience that Jehovah’s Witnesses, while approaching potential converts in person, do not initially describe the most controversial elements of their creed or the strict rules of conduct and the hierarchical structures that characterize their religious life, but rather propose a “biblical study” so that a religious message is presented with the credentials of a scholarly, objective discipline. There are even more poignant examples: the Raelians’ official website hosts a regularly updated page of scientific news, therefore proving to be “science friendly” and scientifically updated. In its proselytizing activities, both in person and on the net, Scientology (which evidently attempts to hijack science’s prestige from its very name) tries to gain prestige while antagonizing psychiatry—certainly not by stating right away the somewhat extravagant, sci-fi like doctrine that actually characterizes L. Ron Hubbard’s (1911–1986) church.
The construction of a visual hyper-reality is also another common marketing strategy: all the magazines devoted to scientific popularization the world over count on the visual appeal of the “facts” they represent to sell more copies. Furthermore, there are instances of a usage of pictures in a religious context analogous to Yahya’s one. Telling is the example of those illustrated booklets distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses that constantly present enticing pictures of nature and the universe, either to argue in favor of the existence of a creator or to depict the afterlife—the delights of which are shown as a hyper-reality in which all visual and sensorial qualities of the present world are exalted.8
Yet, leafing through the pages of the Atlas, one is led to wonder: What is Islamic in this? Undoubtedly, Islamic elements influence some thematic and stylistic devices in Yahya’s overall production (usage of Qur’anic verses, reference to the Mahdi, specific narratives) and some modes of production concerning Yahya’s visual hyper-reality—for instance, a direct representation of God is not allowed. Yet the presence of Islamic elements has to be considered in the context of, and compared with, other elements of such a message. An inspection of the Atlas reveals that Islamic/Qur’anic references and narratives are diluted and rather marginal. As I see it, Islam ends up providing an extrinsic garb in which Yahya’s religious message about God and nature is wrapped. In other words, Islam does not constitute Yahya’s message’s inner logic. Instead we have the scientification of a religious message.
The scientific-sounding effect is obtained, as I pointed out, through stylistic devices and constant attacks on Darwinism. Yahya’s creationism boils down, indeed, to anti-Darwinism, whereas other forms of creationism are more focused on the supposed reasons why creationism is sound. Seemingly in Yahya’s works, attacking Darwinism yields one main result: it hijacks its prestige. Attack science and you will appear as serious as it is. What happens has a parallel in science fiction-movies. Whereas science-fiction movies are often praised (and marketed) as anticipating future scientific and technological developments, they are rather dependent on what most sounds scientific at the time of their release, and are therefore parasitic on scientific popularization. Hence, the plethoric insistence on cloning in sci-fi movies in the 1990s (whereas you hardly hear reference to genes and mutations, say, in the original series of Star Trek). To obtain the same effect, Yahya might well have decided (or may decide one day) to antagonize, say, black holes or light-speed; for instance, he might claim that they are an insult to God’s power, argue that they are not observable, vocally challenge Stephen Hawking in press as he did with Dawkins, and so forth. Of course there are specific historical and cultural reasons why Yahya specifically antagonizes Darwin. Yet what was conceived of as a defense of Islam has become a constant attack that overshadows the religious message itself, sounding scientific because it attacks science. The attack is the message.
Yahya’s appeal, despite his extravagance, should be taken as indicative of some cultural dynamics. Relevant in such dynamics is of course the way in which biological evolution is taught, perceived, and discussed.9 However, there is more to the picture than this. The fact that Yahya can find so many sympathizers points at some objective difficulties in understanding and popularizing not just biological evolution but, more generally, natural science. It is parasitic on what can be called, with Lewis Wolpert’s famous expression, “the unnatural nature of science,” the non-commonsensical (and therefore easily misunderstood or misrepresented) method and object of science;10 with science’s prestige all exploited in a media-savvy way. It might also be legitimately asked whether Yahya’s misunderstandings were, in the first place, personal and genuine, or if they are intentionally induced in the readership and cynically exploited to promote and nourish Yahya’s overall message.
However, it can also be asked whether such discourse is really harmful for the promotion and development of science in (Muslim) societies or whether it rather fills a natural gap by creating a reassuring message for a scientifically illiterate or semi-literate audience. Besides, it can be stated that attacking Yahya is also an important identity-marker for those religious authors who advocate a theistic reading of biological evolution.11 Taner Edis has pointed out that it is much easier to emphasize how crazy evolution sounds than explaining why it works.12 Analogously it is also much easier to emphasize how ludicrous Harun Yahya is than explaining how biological evolution can be reconciled with religious concepts. The existence of a Harun Yahya is, after all, useful for his declared adversaries.
The final result of this analysis sounds like a paradox. The Harun Yahya enterprise disseminates an utterly postmodern product, a scientified religious discourse that, similar to a TV format, can be exploited by any other religion and can be subscribed to by any anti-Darwinists (and conspiracists), independently of their specific religious affiliation. The individual Adnan Oktar has rearranged ready-made materials and set in motion a mechanism whose success does not really depend on him but on pre-existing and not exclusively Islamic cultural dynamics. Similarly, it is unaffected by Oktar’s troubles, and its appeal and impact go beyond the Yahya enterprise’s plans and ambitions. Islam ends up being marginal and it disappears beyond a form of technobabble and highly doctored pictures.
The French philosopher Voltaire famously challenged the traditional denomination “Holy Roman Empire”: it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, he wrote. Analogously, if we inspect “Harun Yahya’s Islamic creationism” with fresh eyes and investigate its deeper logic and wider context, we can conclude that it is neither Harun Yahya’s, nor Islamic, nor creationism.
1. To date, the most complete scholarly investigation of the Yahya enterprise is Ross Solberg 2013. The definition of Oktar as the “public face” of the Yahya brand is to be found in Edis 2008. See also, Numbers 2006, 421–427 and Riexinger 2008.
2. See Harda 2009.
3. See http://harunyahya.com/.
4. See Randerson 2008 and Hameed 2009.
5. See Dean 2007.
6. See Krajeski 2013.
7. See Schneider 2009.
8. See Elliott 1999.
9. For an analysis of Darwin’s reception in the Muslim world, see Howard 2011.
10. See Wolpert 1992.
11. Criticism of Harun Yahya’s creationism is voiced for instance in Guessoum 2011 and Sardar 2011.
12. Edis 2002, 76.
Dean, Cornelia. 2007. Islamic creationist and a book sent round the world. The New York Times (July 17). Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/science/17book.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin.
Edis, Taner. 2002. The Ghost in the Universe. God in Light of Modern Science. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
———. 2008. Harun Yahya’s legal troubles. 2008 Reports of the National Center for Science Education (RNCSE) 28:3 pp. 4–5. Available at http://ncse.com/rncse/28/3/harun-yahyas-legal-troubles.
Elliott, Joel. 1999. You can live forever on a paradise Earth. The visual rhetoric of Jehovah’s Witness iconography. Available at http://www.unc.edu/~elliott/icon.html.
Guessoum, Nidhal. 2011. Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.
Hameed, Salman. 2009. The evolution of Harun Yahya’s “Atlas of Creation.” Available at http://www.irtiqa-blog.com/2009/02/evolution-of-harun-yahyas-atlas-of.html.
Harda, Halil. 2009. Sex, flies and videotape: The secret lives of Harun Yahya. New Humanist 124(5). Available at http://newhumanist.org.uk/2131/sex-flies-and-videotape-the-secret-lives-of-harun-yahya.
Howard, Damian, A. 2011. Being Human in Islam. The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview. London and New York: Routledge.
Krajeski, Jenna. 2013. The Versace harem. Slate (May 2). Available at
Numbers, Ronald L. 2006 (Second Edition). The Creationists. From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: Harvard University Press.
Randerson, James. 2008. Creationist challenges Dawkins. The Guardian (August 19). Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2008/aug/19/richarddawkinsisusedto.
Riexinger, Martin. 2008. Propagating Islamic creationism on the Internet. Masaryk University Journal of Law and Technology 2(2). Available at http://www.digitalislam.eu/article.do?articleId=1980.
Ross Solberg, Anne. 2013. The Mahdi Wears Armani. An Analysis of the Harun Yahya Enterprise. Huddinge: Södertörns Högskola.
Sardar, Ziauddin. 2011. Reading the Qur’an. The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. London: Hurst & Company.
Schneider, Nathan. 2009. Evolving Allah. Can one man succeed in stirring up the Muslim world against Darwin?. Search (March-April). Available at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/42950056/EVOLVING-ALLAH.
Wolpert, Lewis. 1992. The Unnatural Nature of Science. London: Faber & Faber.