Embryology in the Quran
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The concept of Embryology in the Quran claims that a scientifically accurate account of embryological development is available in the Quran. Apologists, Sheikhs, and the larger Muslim community regard the mention of embryological stages in the Quran to be a scientific miracle of Islam and evidence of claims to its divine origin. However, critics claim the verses to be scientifically inaccurate and influenced by Greek theories which had been available at the time.
The apologetic interpretations of these verses began in earnest when books were published by non-Muslim medical experts Dr. Maurice Bucaille and later by Dr. Keith Moore (in a special edition of his book that was subtitled, "With Islamic Additions", alongside his co-author Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a Wahhabi cleric). However, some critics believe Moore was only paying lip service to his hosts and investors, as he worked with the Embryology Committee of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. Moore's praise of Islamic claims have been repeated in talks by Dr. Zakir Naik, Harun Yahya, and other apologists. Critics, like Dr. P.Z. Myers, believe the Quranic verses that mention embryology are incomparable and unacceptable to scientific standards.
Many have written about the remarkable similarities between Quranic embryology and that taught by Galen of Pergamon. Galen was a highly influential Greek physician (b. 130 CE), whose works were studied in Syria and Egypt during Muhammad's time. Some of the most obvious links with Galen (and also with the Talmud) are in statements about the nutfah (نُطْفَةً) stage of embryology in the Quran, and even more so in the hadith. The article Greek and Jewish Ideas about Reproduction in the Quran and Hadith discusses this further. Striking similarities exist between the other Quranic embryo stages and Galen too. However, while interesting and very probable, these influences cannot be proven for the Quran, and it is in any case unnecessary when examining the accuracy of the Quranic descriptions. This article will concentrate solely on apologetic claims made by Islamic du'aah regarding the accuracy of Qur'anic embryology vis-a-vis modern embryology, and on criticisms concerning the validity of these claims.
- Nutfah (نُطْفَةً) - drop of semen
- Alaqah (عَلَقَةً) - leech and certain creatures that cling and suck blood, or blood, thick blood or clotted blood
- Mudghah (مُضْغَةً) - bite-sized morsel of flesh
- 'Itham (عِظَٰمًا) - bones, especially of the limbs
- Kasawa(كَسَوَ) - clothed
- Lahm (لَحْمًا) - flesh
وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ مِن سُلَٰلَةٍ مِّن طِينٍ
ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَٰهُ نُطْفَةً فِى قَرَارٍ مَّكِينٍ
ثُمَّ خَلَقْنَا ٱلنُّطْفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقْنَا ٱلْعَلَقَةَ مُضْغَةً فَخَلَقْنَا ٱلْمُضْغَةَ عِظَٰمًا فَكَسَوْنَا ٱلْعِظَٰمَ لَحْمًا ثُمَّ أَنشَأْنَٰهُ خَلْقًا ءَاخَرَ ۚ فَتَبَارَكَ ٱللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ ٱلْخَٰلِقِينَ
Verily We created man from a product of wet earth [sulalatin min teenin سُلَٰلَةٍ مِّن طِينٍ]; Then placed him as a drop (of seed) [nutfatan نُطْفَةً] in a safe lodging [qararin makeenin قَرَارٍ مَّكِينٍ]; Then fashioned We the drop a clot ['alaqatan عَلَقَةً], then fashioned We the clot a little lump [mudghatan مُضْغَةً], then fashioned We the little lump bones ['ithaman عِظَٰمًا], then clothed [kasawna كَسَوْنَا] the bones with flesh [lahman لَحْمًا], and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators!
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِن كُنتُمْ فِى رَيْبٍ مِّنَ ٱلْبَعْثِ فَإِنَّا خَلَقْنَٰكُم مِّن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ ثُمَّ مِنْ عَلَقَةٍ ثُمَّ مِن مُّضْغَةٍ مُّخَلَّقَةٍ وَغَيْرِ مُخَلَّقَةٍ لِّنُبَيِّنَ لَكُمْ ۚ وَنُقِرُّ فِى ٱلْأَرْحَامِ مَا نَشَآءُ إِلَىٰٓ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى ثُمَّ نُخْرِجُكُمْ طِفْلًا ثُمَّ لِتَبْلُغُوٓا۟ أَشُدَّكُمْ ۖ وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّىٰ وَمِنكُم مَّن يُرَدُّ إِلَىٰٓ أَرْذَلِ ٱلْعُمُرِ لِكَيْلَا يَعْلَمَ مِنۢ بَعْدِ عِلْمٍ شَيْـًٔا ۚ وَتَرَى ٱلْأَرْضَ هَامِدَةً فَإِذَآ أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْهَا ٱلْمَآءَ ٱهْتَزَّتْ وَرَبَتْ وَأَنۢبَتَتْ مِن كُلِّ زَوْجٍۭ بَهِيجٍ
O mankind! if ye are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then lo! We have created you from dust [turabin تُرَابٍ], then from a drop of seed [nutfatin نُّطْفَةٍ], then from a clot [alaqatin عَلَقَةٍ], then from a little lump of flesh [mudghatin مُّضْغَةٍ] shapely and shapeless [mukhallaqatin waghayri mukhallaqatin مُّخَلَّقَةٍ وَغَيْرِ مُخَلَّقَةٍ], that We may make (it) clear for you. And We cause what We will to remain in the wombs for an appointed time, and afterward We bring you forth as infants, then (give you growth) that ye attain your full strength. And among you there is he who dieth (young), and among you there is he who is brought back to the most abject time of life, so that, after knowledge, he knoweth naught. And thou (Muhammad) seest the earth barren, but when We send down water thereon, it doth thrill and swell and put forth every lovely kind (of growth).
هُوَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَكُم مِّن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ ثُمَّ مِنْ عَلَقَةٍ ثُمَّ يُخْرِجُكُمْ طِفْلًا ثُمَّ لِتَبْلُغُوٓا۟ أَشُدَّكُمْ ثُمَّ لِتَكُونُوا۟ شُيُوخًا ۚ وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّىٰ مِن قَبْلُ ۖ وَلِتَبْلُغُوٓا۟ أَجَلًا مُّسَمًّى وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَHe it is Who created you from dust [turabin تُرَابٍ], then from a drop (of seed) [nutfatin نُّطْفَةٍ] then from a clot [alaqatin عَلَقَةٍ], then bringeth you forth as a child, then (ordaineth) that ye attain full strength and afterward that ye become old men - though some among you die before - and that ye reach an appointed term, that haply ye may understand.
Scientific criticism of Quranic embryology
Embryology in the Quran is often criticised from a modern scientific perspective. More details including references are given throughout this article, but the main criticisms are as follows:
- A number of verses collectively demonstrate a belief that the earliest, nutfah stage of development is made of semen, perhaps mixed with a female fluid, which is placed in the womb for a known term, and where it undergoes various stages of development (as also taught by Galen and in the Jewish Talmud). See this article for the most comprehensive explanation and evidence. Furthermore, there is no sign that the author of the Quran was aware of the female egg (ovum).
In reality, a single sperm cell penetrates and fuses with the female ovum. This fertilised egg, called a zygote, is then pushed down the fallopian tube for a few days. On the way, cell division begins, and this multi-celled cluster, now called a blastocyst, implants in the uterus (womb).
- The embryo is then said to be congealed blood.  All the classical tafsirs (exegetical commentaries) understood the meaning of 'alaqah to be blood or congealed blood, and clotted blood is a definition of the word in classical Arabic dictionaries. Regardless of alternative meanings for this Arabic word, it does not make sense to interpret a word whose main definitions include an explicit biological meaning (clotted blood) in a description of a biological process (embryology); certainly, from the point of divine authorship of the Qur'an, such imprecise meaning would throw into doubt the Qur'an's claim to be "clear." The choice of word now causes a well justified suspicion of inaccuracy, and for centuries misled people into thinking that the embryo is at one stage congealed blood (an actual embryo is at no point blood or a clot of blood). Similarly, again from the divine authorship and clarity perspective, for the same reason it would not make sense to use this word while intending blood clot as a mere visual analogy.
- The Quran claims that bones are formed before being clothed with flesh. In fact cartilage models of the bones start to form at the same time as and in parallel with surrounding muscles, and this cartilage is literally replaced with bone.
The author of the Quran described a sequence of stages, which when examined without the false definitions and arbitrary assumptions made by apologists, clearly has no resemblance to the actual development process of a child in the womb, according to critics. Someone with a modern, scientific knowledge of embryology can instead marvel at the exquisite complexity that results from a process of co-ordinated cell differentiation and signaling, encoded in our genetic instruction set by millions of years of evolution, and devoid of any apparent divine design.
Modern revisionary perspectives
Original Creation from Dust / Clay / Mud
Confusion is sometimes caused by statements about dust (tubarin تُرَابٍ), mud (hamain حَمَإٍ), clay (teenin طِينٍ), or sounding clay (salsalin صَلْصَٰلٍ) in the Quranic embryology verses quoted above. Clarification is provided in other verses that this refers to the creation of Adam only, and that the subsequent statements about various stages relate to the development of humans since then. This was also the opinion of classical scholars such as ibn Kathir.
Verses like these refer to Adam specifically, that man was made from clay (min مِّنْ means 'from' or 'of'), and that clay was a building material which was moulded and shaped, and not a catalytic compound as some apologetics claim in an attempt to link the Quran with one theory about the origin of all life on Earth.
While again not strictly related to embryology, another claim on some Islamic websites is that clay and humans have similar compositions. The Chambers Dictionary of Science and Technology defines clay as, "a fine textured, sedimentary, or residual deposit. It consists of hydrated silicates of aluminum mixed with various impurities". The essential elements in clay are thus silicon, aluminum, hydrogen and oxygen. Silicon and Aluminum have extremely limited, if any, roles to play in the maintenance of life. Other human-required elements (such as nitrogen, sodium etc) are only found in trace amounts in clay and can be regarded as contaminants. There is no similarity between the compositions of clay and humans.
The Nutfah (Semen) Stage
The first stage of Quranic embryology is the nutfah stage. Translations typically use words like "sperm-drop", while apologetics tend to interpret it as the fertilised egg in the early stages of cell division (zygote, blastocyst). The word nutfah literally meant a small amount of liquid, and was a euphemism for semen. The Lisan al Arab dictionary of classical Arabic gives the following definitions:
An example of nutfah usage can be found in a pre-Islamic poem where it is used to mean “the small quantity of wine that remained in a wineskin”.
Verses 80:18-19, and 77:20-22 together with 23:13 strongly imply that it is semen that is stored in the womb and developed into the embryo, as confirmed in the hadiths and previously believed by the Jews and Greeks.
As can be seen in the above quotes, verses 77:20-21 closely parallel 23:13. Both say "We placed it (jaAAalnahu) in a safe abode (qararin makeen)", and one uses the word nutfah while the other uses the words maa' maheenin ('water distained'). Maa' was another common euphemism for semen. The 'hu' ending to jaAAalnahu in both verses can mean him or it, and probably means the former in 23:13 ('We placed him'). However, in 77:21 it must mean the latter ('We placed it') in reference to the liquid because the previous verse uses the 2nd person "you" and then mentions the liquid.
Another criticism is that the Quran makes no mention of the female egg (ovum). It is merely an assumption by apologists that 'nutfatun amshajin' (amshajin means mixed) in verse 76:2 includes the female gamete (ovum), and in any case the sperm cell is not swimming in male semen at the time of fertilization (see the Mingled male and female fluids section below).
The term ‘nutfatun amshaajin’ in verse 76:2 could alternatively refer to the sperm-menstrual blood union of Aristotle and the ancient Indian embryologists, or the two semens hypothesis of Hippocrates and Galen, or even the readily observed mingling of semen and vaginal discharge during sexual intercourse. In other words, the fact the Quran does not explicitly state that ‘nutfatun amshaajin’ contains the ovum, together with the existence of other possible explanations, means that it is illogical to assume the former and not the latter.
Some critics argue that in fact, the Quran displays an understanding that is contrary to the role of the ovum in procreation, for verse 2:223 states that wives are tilth. This suggests they are like the earth, which simply provides nutrients and receives the seed from the male.
The 'Alaqah Stage
The consensus in the tafsirs for the embryology verses was that 'alaqah meant blood. In numerous tafsirs it is variously described as blood (al dam الدم), congealed blood (al dam al jamid الدم الجامد), or simply, red 'alaqah ('alaqah hamra علقة حمراء). Nevertheless, in modern times some apologists, especially those who know that this contradicts the biological reality, have tried to reinterpret the word using some of the other dictionary definitions for 'alaqah or 'alaq. Each of these alternatives is problematic from a scientific perspective, as indeed is the mere fact that 'alaqah has clotted blood as one of its main meanings.
One claim is that 'alaqah is used in the sense of a clinging thing in the Quran. However, the embryo does not cease to be attached to the uterine wall when the musculo-skeletal system begins to develop around the 5th week. Yet the Quranic stages appear to describe a transition between a succession of states. It would in any case be self-evident from aborted fetuses that at some stage the embryo becomes attached to something.
Hanging / Suspended
Also flawed is a related claim, that 'alaqah is used here in its meaning of a suspended, or hanging thing, because the early embryo is floating in amniotic fluid, and is attached via a connecting stalk to the uterine wall in which it is buried. The problem is that not all embryos hang downwards below their connecting stalk. Rather it depends where in the uterus implantation occurs. The uterus lies fairly horizontal at this time, so depending on the side of the uterus implantation occurs, the early embryo can also be above its stalk, as this diagram of twins at 4 weeks demonstrates :
Various studies of placentas and ultrasound scans have found that between 26% and 53% of implantations occur on the anterior (frontal) wall of the uterus (like the lower twin in the diagram). Clearly apologists should expect better of the Quran's author than to say that as early embryos, humans are "hanging things" when such a description is untrue for a significant percentage of the population, not even a general rule.
This scientific inaccuracy should be considered before even raising the doubts above concerning the suitability of the word 'alaqah to describe embryos that are on the posterior wall, and thus below their connecting stalks. It stretches credulity highly to claim that 'alaqah in the sense of “hanging” would be a good way to describe the embryo in relation to the connecting stalk. Lane’s lexicon strongly indicates that 'alaq is not just the thing which is hung, but the entire apparatus or vertical rope by which means it is suspended, or even just the rope itself, giving the example of a suspended bucket in a well. The stalk evidently has a certain amount of stiffness and does not hang vertically under gravity like a bucket in a well.
Many apologists claim that 'alaqah in the Quran means a leech (in a metaphorical sense), and that this is similar to an embryo. However, unlike a leech, which simply sucks blood from its host, the embryo circulates and exchanges gases, nutrients and waste products with its mother. Most significantly, the placental membrane or barrier ensures that the embryo does not take from or exchange blood with its mother, who may have a different blood type. Furthermore, a leech attaches itself directly to the surface of its host. In contrast, the blastocyst stage embryo implants into the uterine wall (endometrium) by means of an outer cell layer surrounding it, called the syncytiotrophoblast. It is the syncytiotrophoblast which invades the endometrium, burying the entire embryo within the wall (unlike a leech), establishes a circulatory connection, and will later form the outer layer of the placenta.
A leech has many characteristics such as size, behaviour, shape, color, appearance. It makes no sense for the author to have used 'alaqah in a metaphorical sense when his listeners could not be expected to know in what respect the analogy applies. It is no more than a Texan Sharpshooter fallacy, typical of Islamic miracle claims, to choose one characteristic - shape - which to a very and arbitrarily limited degree has similarity with that of an embryo (in their eyes) and to then draw any conclusions. This is particularly so given that the early embryo passes through a wide range of shapes and that both a leech and human embryo are biological organisms. Moreover, when depicting the embryo such apologetics have to conveniently ignore the embryo's yolk sac, which gradually becomes incorporated into its developing gut.
Above and beyond all of this, "leech" is not the most common meaning of this word; clot works much better here, and most translators including Arberry, Pickthall, and Sahih international all translate it this way. The translation of "leech", "leech-like embryo" or "embryo" only appeared in the modern age after the discoveries of embryology, and were not known in pre-modern translations.
One of the meanings of 'alaqah is congealed blood, which was also the understanding given in numerous tafsirs, as detailed above. The Arab poet al-Nabigha alja'di النابغة الجعدي (died c.670 AD) was a contemporary of Muhammad and uses the word blood (al dam الدم) in exactly the same context in a poem about Allah. From the perspective of seeing the Qur'an as a divine text illuminating the knowledge of mankind, the usage of the 'alaqah must be seen as a failure to "clearly" convey the actual knowledge the author allegedly possessed.
'Alaqah in pre-Islamic poetry
Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma, one of the greatest pre-Islamic poets, used 'alaq in the context of pregnancy, showing that such usage, regardless of its intended meaning, pre-dates the Qur'an. His poem Mu'allaqa has a line describing how al 'alaq discharged from his she-camels as they were having miscarriages on a long journey.
The relevant words read: yajhudu (يَجْهُضُ) min (مِنْ) arhaamiha (أَرْحَامِهَا) al 'alaq (الْعَلَقُ). Word for word, that is "miscarriaging from their wombs al 'alaq".
Zuhayr died in 609 CE, before Islam, or according to one account, at the age of 100 in 627 CE, with Muhammad meeting him on the day he died.
The Mudghah Stage
The word mudghah meant a bite sized morsel of meat suitable for chewing. Islamic websites frequently claim, without citing any evidence, that it means a piece of meat that has actually been chewed, or even that has teeth marks on it. Readers of such websites are invited to admire the supposed similarities between an image of the somites of an embryo next to a piece of chewing gum with a row or two of teeth marks from a single bite. The problems with this argument include:
- They are using a false definition of the word mudghah, as mentioned above.
- It is a lot easier to leave neat teeth marks in chewing gum than on a piece of meat.
- Somites (bilateral rows of blocks of cells that will migrate and develop into segments of the body) are protrusions, but teeth marks are indentations.
Verse 22:5 mentions that the mudghah is formed and without form. Given that this stage appears before the 'itham (bones) stage, such a 'clarification' gives no additional information whatsoever. Such vagueness of description is typical of premodern understanding of biology and embryology.
The Bones and Clothing with Flesh Stages
Bone and Muscle Formation According to Medical Science
In order to compare with science the Quranic statement that Allah makes the lump of flesh bones ('ithaman) and then clothes (fa-kasawna) the bones with flesh (lahman), first we should see what science has discovered about the process of bone and muscle formation. Here is a brief description for both of them, without any detail on the relative timing of parallel processes. The section that follows afterwards contains numerous cited scientific sources stating the timing of these processes. Finally we will compare this with the Quran.
Mesoderm is the middle of the three layers of the early embryo. Some of the mesoderm cells (paraxial mesoderm) form a series of blocks called somites either side of the neural tube (this tube will eventually form the spinal cord and brain). These somites will differentiate into sclerotome and myotome, which form the cartilage 'models' (or 'templates') and become connective tissues (including muscles) respectively of the future axial skeleton (i.e. everything except the limbs, shoulders and pelvis). The myotome differentiates and migrates as the sclerotome is condensing into mesenchyme, which will produce cartilage. Each process occurs segmentally down the somites in a cranio-caudal sequence (head to tail).
Another area of mesoderm (lateral plate mesoderm) proliferates especially quickly in certain positions to form the limb buds. There, mesenchyme cells condense into distinct masses within the limb buds. These mesenchyme cells differentiate into chondrocytes, which secrete the cartilage matrix and are embedded in it. Thus cartilage models of the future limb bones gradually form (chondrification). Once the cartilage models have formed and while they are still growing, the cartilage is literally replaced with actual bone by osteoblasts (ossification) working outwards from centres of the cartilage models. Osteoclasts remove the remnants of the mineralized cartilage. Ossification also starts in the axial skeleton some time after it has begun in the limbs, except for the upper and lower jaw, which start to ossify slightly earlier.
Meanwhile, the process of limb muscle formation begins as soon as the limb buds appear. Myoblast cells migrate from somites to populate the limb buds. They aggregate into distinct masses, differentiating and fusing into muscle fibres, as the condensing mesenchyme starts to chondrify, and before the resulting cartilage models begin to ossify.
The Timing of These Processes
The scientific evidence shows that the development of cartilage/bone and muscles is contemporaneous.
A very detailed account of musculo-skeletal development in the human limb by clinical-geneticist Robert Jan Galjaard covers this subject. It details that muscle precursor cells migrate from the somites into the limb buds (ca. day 26), well before the condensing core of mesenchyme has started to chondrify into cartilage bone models in the upper part of the upper limb (ca. day 37), followed by the lower part (ca. day 41). The myoblasts have grouped into distinct masses by this stage and are differentiating into muscle fibres. The upper limbs later start to ossify (ca. day 54). Chondrification of mesenchyme, the grouping of myogenic masses, and ossification all occur in a proximal-distal order (upper to lower part of each limb). The digits of the hands only start to chondrify ca. day 51.
Professor Peter Law confirms that myoblasts are found in the limb buds day 26.
Myoblasts have aggregated into ventral and dorsal masses in the upper limb by day 36 and the start of chondrification.
A detailed account by Walker and Miranda, including useful diagrams, explains that after day 35, the premuscle regions of the limb containing myoblasts and fibroblasts become distinct, and by day 45 have started to fuse together to become myotubes (which form muscle fibres). With axial musculo-skeletal development, myotomes have migrated (these form axial muscle) and sclerotomes have started to condense into mesenchyme (which will form cartilage) in the 5th week.
According to Rugh, Building blocks are present for 40 pairs of muscles, which are located from the base of the skull to the bottom of the spinal column by day 28 (these are the myotomes of the somites). Muscles appear in the pelvis day 31. Movement of the muscles is being controlled by the nervous system by the 6th week . All of the muscle blocks have appeared by day 36 after conception.
In the 10th edition (2016) of the Developing Human, Keith Moore says that ossification of the long bones begins in the 8th week, starting with the upper limbs, followed by the lower limbs and pelvis (which concurs with Galjaard cited above).
It is apparent from the above that muscle masses have started to form around the mesenchyme condensations around the same time as they begin to chondrify into cartilage models of the limb bones, and long before they have even begun to ossify. Similarly, the process of muscle and cartilage formation begins at the same time for the axoskeleton. Muscles and cartilage, and bone that replaces it, continue their formation in parallel with each other.
Problems With The Quranic Description
Firstly, it is clear that bone formation (ossification) begins long after muscle has begun to develop around its precursors. Therefore, there is no scientific basis for the Quranic claim of a stage in which bone is later covered with flesh after its own formation. The prefix fa before kasawna means "and then", indicating an uninterrupted sequence.
Next, if proponents of unerring Quranic embryology suppose that the Quran was only referring to precursor cartilage models of the bones and not bone itself, they have to explain why the author of the Quran mentioned not cartilage (ghudhroof)) but only bone ('itham), which starts to form well after muscles.
In any case its embryology would still be wrong. We have seen that muscle and bone (or their precursors) develop contemporaneously, although the parallel processes start when muscle begins developing around condensations of mesenchyme that have only just begun to differentiate into cartilage, as detailed above.
For the same reason the Quran would still be wrong even if, with further and unjustifiable generosity, we suppose that it means only the very beginning of the formation of the cartilage (chondrification) before they are in any sense complete shapes. Going back earlier still, it can even be pointed out that the precursors of muscles (myoblasts) and precursors to the cartilage (mesenchyme) are present in the limb bud as soon as it arises.
Of course, the natural reading of verse 23:14 is that the bones have some sort of meaningful shape, and can meaningfully be called bones. This is certainly not the case when the condensed mesenchyme has merely started to produce cartilage. Furthermore, the natural reading of verse 23:14 is that all the bones have some meaningful presence worthy of the label 'bones' before Allah clothes them with flesh. As noted in the evidence above, fingers only start to even chondrify after muscle formation is already well underway in the upper part of the limbs.
We have more evidence that 23:14 refers to things already recognizable as bones being clothed with muscles or flesh elsewhere in the Quran. Verse 2:259 uses the same Arabic words as does 23:14 for 'bones', 'clothed' and 'flesh' to describe the resurrection of a donkey which had been dead for 100 years. The main embryology passages such as verse 22:5 suggest that embryological development has similarities with resurrection.
The New Creation Stage
After the bones were clothed with flesh, the Quran finally says that Allah "produced it as another creation". Some apologists identify this with the fetal period of pregnancy, which begins at week nine.
Aside from the various stages described in the main Quranic embryology verses, some apologists claim to have found additional examples of miraculous knowledge relating to this topic.
Some claim that verses 35:11 and 53:45-46 indicate that gender is determined at the nutfah stage, and specifically by sperm cells (which contain either an x or y chromosome to go with the x chromosome of the female ovum).
However, verses 75:37-39 use the same language about gender, but after the 'alaqah stage. 75:39 uses the exact same phrase as in 53:45, "وَأَنَّهُۥ خَلَقَ ٱلزَّوْجَيْنِ ٱلذَّكَرَ وَٱلْأُنثَىٰ" "wa innahu khalaqa alzzawjayni aldhdhakara waaluntha" ("verily he created the two spouses, the male and the female"}, which is also similar to the word used in 35:11, azwajan (male / female pair).
Apologists interpret 75:39 to mean that the external genitalia and gonads are formed after the 'alaqah stage, knowing that the gender of the child has already been determined genetically at the moment of conception as stated above. The point from 35:11 and 53:45-46 seems to be rather that Allah simply created human beings as men and women; no inference can reasonably be made about sexual development from sperm based on these verses.
Moreover, if 53:45 is taken literally as indicating 'when' gender is determined, it would be inaccurate, because millions of sperm are emitted, some with an x chromosome, some with a y chromosome. Gender is determined not when the semen is emitted (as the next verse 46 indicates), but rather when the egg is fertilized by one of the sperm cells, which can take anything from half an hour to 12 hours for the first of them to reach the egg, and then more time for one of the many that arrive to successfully penetrate it.
It should also be remembered, as noted above, that the evidence is unanimous that nutfah means a small quantity of fluid, a euphemism for semen – there is no indication of sperm cells within the fluid.
Furthermore, there are hadith even more explicit than Quran 75:37-39 which say that gender is decided after the mudghah stage
Furthermore, not everyone is simply a male with XY sex chromosomes, or a female with XX sex chromosomes. A small minority are called intersex due to certain types of genetic or phenotypic sex variations, including:
- Those who are 46, XY intersex. The person has the chromosomes of a man, but the external genitals are incompletely formed, ambiguous, or clearly female.
- Those who are 46, XX intersex. The person has the chromosomes of a woman, the ovaries of a woman, but external (outside) genitals that appear male.
- True Gonadal intersex (formerly called True Hermaphroditism). Such people have both male and female gonads (ovaries and testes), and may have ambiguous external genitalia.
- Other genetic configurations include XXX, and XXY (1 in 1000 people). These people have no discrepancy between their gonads and external genitalia, but there may be problems with sex hormone levels, and overall sexual development.
According to Leonard Sax, when the term intersex is "restricted to those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female", around 0.018% of the population are intersex. This definition excludes Klinefelter syndrome and many other variations. There is no mention of these conditions in any conceivable interpretation of the Qur'an.
Sperm within Semen
Others claim that verses 75:37 and 32:7-8 hint at sperm within the semen. These claims are discussed in the context of very similar verses at the end of the article Greek and Jewish Ideas about Reproduction in the Quran and Hadith
Mingled male and female fluids
Quran 76:2 states that "Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm [nutfatin amshajin نُّطْفَةٍ أَمْشَاجٍ], in order to try him: So We gave him (the gifts), of Hearing and Sight." Some claim that this is a reference to male semen and follicular fluid. There are two problems with this claim:
1) By the time a sperm cell reaches a woman's fallopian tube where fertilisation occurs, it is no longer swimming in male semen, but has instead swam through cervical mucus, then binded to epithelium of the uterine tube where it undergoes capacitation and detaches again, then through a combination of muscular movements of the tube and some swimming movements makes its way up the tube.; and
2) Follicular fluid is part of the developmental environment of the female ovum (oocyte, egg cell) before the egg is released from the egg follicle. While some fluid is released at the same time into the fallopian tube, the ovum is pushed along the fallopian tube by fallopian cilia (microscopic hairs) and is bathed in another type of tubal fluid secretion.
For these reasons, fertilization cannot reasonably be described as a mingling of semen and follicular fluid. Rather, the Qur'anic statement corresponds with the Galenic theory of two semens, male and female, which was widespread in the region and time. Galen's influence is also apparent in numerous hadiths relating to this notion and other issues relating to human reproduction.
Fetus is in Three Layers of darkness
Some apologetics claim that Quran 39:6 accurately describes 3 dark layers around the fetus. A common apologetic interpretation is that the "three darknesses" are the abdominal wall, the uterine wall, and the amniotic sac.
The word butun (بطن) means belly/abdomen/midriff, though some translators like to use the more specific word "womb". Tafsirs interpreted the "three darknesses" as the placenta, womb (uterus) and belly. There are in fact many more layers in the human body such as the endometrium, myometrium, perimetrium, peritoneum, besides the cervix uteri, corpus uteri, abdomen (with walls), and placenta (with layers).
The idea of three membranes around the fetus - (chorion, allantois, and amnion) was taught by the highly influential Greek physician, Galen. Some critics suggest that the Quranic author is simply repeating this idea, which applies only to the embryonic membranes. The allantois is a sac-like structure which becomes part of the umbilical cord, and thus cannot be described as 'a darkness' for the embryo. The other two membranes, the chorion and amnion, together form the amniotic sac, which is quite thin and transparent.
The Minimum Period of Fetal Viability
Another claim is that the Qur'an correctly states that the minimum period for gestation of a viable baby is 6 months. This claim is based on two Quranic verses, the first of which states that a child is weaned for two years (24 lunar months), and the other that the bearing and weaning of a child lasts for 30 lunar months. Yusuf Ali makes this claim in the notes of his translation for verse 46:15, presumably having noticed that the two verses in combination do not equate to a 9 month pregnancy.
Six lunar months equates to 22 weeks. The claim that this is the minimum period for fetal viability is unsupported by modern medical science. It has changed, at least in recent history, and was never 22 weeks or 6 lunar months prior to the era of modern medicine, being likely to have been at least 30 weeks. Now, it has shrunk to only 19 weeks in countries with advanced pediatric medicine. The minimum period of fetal viability in many less-developed countries would still be around 30 weeks.
The End of Cell Differentiation
Some proponents of Quranic embryology state that the mudghah stage, which is described in one verse as "partly formed and partly unformed" or "shaped and shapeless", refers to the incomplete cell differentiation observed in this stage.
However, cell differentiation occurs throughout the embryonic stage, and even into the fetal period, for example as discussed above regarding bone and muscle development.
- Embryology - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Embryology
- Quranic Embryology - Dr. Yusuf Needham and Dr. Butrus Needbeer, FreeThought Mecca
- Embryology in the Quran - Dr. Lactantius, Answering Islam
- Islamic embryology: overblown balderdash - Dr. PZ Myers' response to Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’ paper, Embryology in the Quran
- Bucaille, M., La Bible, le Coran et la Science : Les Écritures Saintes examinées à la lumière des connaissances modernes, Paris:Seghers, 1976, (ISBN 978-2221501535)
- Keith L. Moore and Abdul-Majeed A. Zindani, The Developing Human With Islamic Additions, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Saunders with Jeddah:Dar al-Qiblah for Islamic Literature, 1983
- Later, Dr. Moore wrote a similarly popularised article for an Islamic journal:
Dr. Moore, K., A Scientist's Interpretation of References to Embryology in the Qur'an, Journal of the Islamic Medical Association, 1986, vol.18(Jan-June):15-17
- Keith L. Moore and Abdul-Majeed A. Zindani, The Developing Human With Islamic Additions, 3rd ed., Philadelphia: Saunders with Jeddah:Dar al-Qiblah for Islamic Literature, 1983, page viii insert c.
- Dr. P.Z. Myers Islamic embryology: overblown balderdash, Pharyngula blog - Scienceblogs.com, 2011, accessed 4 Jan 2019
- Marshall Clagett, “Greek Science in Antiquity”, pp.180-181, New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1955; Dover, 2001
- "Phonetic and Phonological Aspects of Arabic Emphatics and Gutturals". University of Wisconsin–Madison. Bin-Muqbil, Musaed (2006).
- نُطْفَةً nutfah - Lane's Lexicon Suppliment, page 3034
- عَلَقَةً alaqah - Lane's Lexicon Volume 5, page 2134
- مُضْغَةً mudghah - Lane's Lexicon Suppliment, page 3021
- عِظَٰمًا 'itham - Lane's Lexicon Volume 5, page 2087
- كَسَوَ kasawa - Lane's Lexicon Suppliment, page 3000
- لَحْمًا lahm - Lane's Lexicon Suppliment, page 3008 and page 3009
- Quran 23:13, Quran 70:20-22, Quran 80:18-19 See discussion in the Nutfah Stage section.
- "Conception: How it Works", University of California San Francisco - Center for Reproductive Health, https://crh.ucsf.edu/fertility/conception.
- Quran 23:14, Quran 22:5, Quran 40:67 See discussion in the 'Alaqah Stage section.
- Dr Mark Hill, "Timeline human development", University of New South Wales, https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Timeline_human_development.
- Quran 23:14 See discussion in the Bones and Clothing with Flesh Stages section.
- See discussion and scientific references in the sub-sections to the Bones and Clothing with Flesh Stages section.
- Who made all things good which He created, and He began the creation of man from clay [teenin طِينٍ]; Then He made his seed from a draught of despised fluid;
The word translated “seed” in Pickthall’s translation is nasl, which means progeny (i.e. descendants). نسل nasl - Lane’s Lexicon Suppliment, page 3032
- Lo! the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust [turabin تُرَابٍ], then He said unto him: Be! and he is.
- We created man from sounding clay [salsalin صَلْصَٰلٍ], from mud [hamain حَمَإٍ] molded into shape;
- Fenchel, Tom 2003. The origin and Early Evolution of Life. Oxford University Press. Page 27.
- Lisan al Arab
- Irfan Shahid, “Byzantium and the Arabs in the sixth century. Volume 2, Part 2”, p.145, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2009
- أَمْشَاج Amshajan -  Volume 7 Page 2717
- Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm [nutfatin amshajin نُّطْفَةٍ أَمْشَاجٍ], in order to try him: So We gave him (the gifts), of Hearing and Sight.
- Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) go to your tilth as ye will, and send (good deeds) before you for your souls, and fear Allah, and know that ye will (one day) meet Him. Give glad tidings to believers, (O Muhammad).
- Fraternal twins in the womb -- 4 weeks - BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board, June 1, 2013
- Benirschke, K. & Kaufmann, B. 2000. Pathology of the Human Placenta. 4th Edition. Springer-Verlag, New York. Page 399 - 400
- علق 'alaq - Lane's Lexicon Volume 5, page 2134
- Barry Mitchell & Ram Sharma 2009. Embryology: An Illustrated Colour Text. Second Edition. Churchill Livingstone ElSevier. Page 10-12
- "The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is an informal fallacy in which pieces of information that have no relationship to one another are called out for their similarities, and that similarity is used for claiming the existence of a pattern. This fallacy is the philosophical/rhetorical application of the multiple comparisons problem (in statistics) and apophenia (in cognitive psychology). It is related to the clustering illusion, which refers to the tendency in human cognition to interpret patterns where none actually exist. The name comes from a joke about a Texan who fires some shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the biggest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter."
"Texas sharpshooter fallacy", Wikipedia, accessed August 13, 2013 (archived), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_sharpshooter_fallacy.
الخـالق البـارئ المصـور في الأرحام ماء حتى يصير دما
Translation: The creator, the maker, the fashioner, in the wombs water until it becomes blood
Water (maa') is used here as a euphemism for semen, just as we sometimes find in the Quran and hadiths (see above).
- In Arabic, the relevant line of Zuhayr's poem regarding a journey to see his patron, Harim ibn Sinan, reads:
إليك أعملتها فتلا مرافقها، شهرين يجهض من أرحامها العلق
It appears on p.245 of volume 1 of the anthology by Muhammad Ibn 'Abd Rabbih (d. 328/940), al-ʿIqd al-Farīd (The Unique Necklace), 9 vols, eds. Mufid Muhammad Qumayha et al, Beirut, 1983.
The English translation of this volume by Boullata is very non-literal, glossing the last words as "productive wombs": Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, The Unique Necklace: Al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, trans. by Issa J. Boullata, Great Books of Islamic Civilization, 3 vols, first edition, Reading, UK: Garnet, 2006, p.200
- Clouston, W. A., Arabian Poetry for English Readers Glasgow (private publication), 1881, Introduction p. xliii
- O People, if you should be in doubt about the Resurrection, then [consider that] indeed, We created you from dust, then from a sperm-drop, then from a clinging clot, and then from a lump of flesh, formed and unformed - that We may show you. And We settle in the wombs whom We will for a specified term, then We bring you out as a child, and then [We develop you] that you may reach your [time of] maturity. And among you is he who is taken in [early] death, and among you is he who is returned to the most decrepit [old] age so that he knows, after [once having] knowledge, nothing. And you see the earth barren, but when We send down upon it rain, it quivers and swells and grows [something] of every beautiful kind
- Galjaard, R.J.H. Mapping Studies of Congenital Limb Anomalies. Ablasserdam: Haveka, B.V., 2003, page 16 webcitation archive link
- Law, Peter et al., Pioneering Human Myoblast Genome Therapy as a Platform Technology of Regenerative Medicine. In: Stem Cell Therapy. Erik Greer (Editor). Nova Science Publishers, Inc. 2006. Page 3.
- Sivakumar, B. et. al. Congenital Hand Differences in Farhadieh, R. et. al. (ed.) Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: Approaches and Techniques, Chichester: Wiley, 2015, p.660 Google books preview
- Walker, U. A., and Miranda, A. F. Muscle Metabolism in the Fetus and Neonate in Cowett, R. M. (ed.) Principles of Perinatal-Neonatal Metabolism, 2nd Edition, Volume 1, New York: Springer, 1998, pp.642-643 Google Books preview
- Conception to Birth Roberts Rugh, Ph.D., Landrum B. Shettles, Ph.D., M.D. Harper & Row, (New York), 1971, p.35
- ibid. p.43
- ibid. p.34
- ibid. p.46
- Keith L. Moore, Ph..D., FIAC, FRSM T.V.N. Persaud, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc., FRCPath W.B., The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, , 10th Edition, Philadelphia: Elseiver, 2016, p. p.349 Google Books preview
- فَ fa - Lane's Lexicon Volume 6, page 2322
- غضروف ghudhroof, alternatively spelt غرضوف ghurdoof - Lane's Lexicon Volume 6, page 2248
- [...]and look at your ass; and that We may make you a sign to men, and look at the bones, how We set them together, then clothed them with flesh[...]
Transliteration: waonthur ila himarika walinajAAalaka ayatan lilnnasi waonthur ila alAAithami kayfa nunshizuha thumma naksooha lahman}}
- Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators!}}
- Narrated Anas bin Malik:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "At every womb Allah appoints an angel who says, 'O Lord! A drop of semen, O Lord! A clot. O Lord! A little lump of flesh." Then if Allah wishes (to complete) its creation, the angel asks, (O Lord!) Will it be a male or female, a wretched or a blessed, and how much will his provision be? And what will his age be?' So all that is written while the child is still in the mother's womb."
Sahih Bukhari 1:6:315
- Medline plus - Intersex
- "How common is intersex? | Intersex Society of North America", Isna.org, http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency.
- Sax, L., How common is intersex? a response to Anne Fausto-Sterling Journal of Sex Research, volume 39, issue 3, pp.174–178 (2002) doi 10.1080/00224490209552139 pmid 12476264
- Was he not a drop of fluid which gushed forth?
- Who made all things good which He created, and He began the creation of man from clay; Then He made his seed from a draught of despised fluid;
- Clinicalgate.com - Transport of gametes and fertilization
- Britannica.com - Ovulation
- He created you from one soul. Then He made from it its mate, and He produced for you from the grazing livestock eight mates. He creates you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, within three darknesses. That is Allah, your Lord; to Him belongs dominion. There is no deity except Him, so how are you averted?
- بطن butun - [Lane's Lexicon Volume 1, page 220
- And We have enjoined upon man concerning his parents. His mother beareth him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years. Give thanks unto Me and unto thy parents. Unto Me is the journeying.
- And We have commended unto man kindness toward parents. His mother beareth him with reluctance, and bringeth him forth with reluctance, and the bearing of him and the weaning of him is thirty months, till, when he attaineth full strength and reacheth forty years, he saith: My Lord! Arouse me that I may give thanks for the favour wherewith Thou hast favoured me and my parents, and that I may do right acceptable unto Thee. And be gracious unto me In the matter of my seed. Lo! I have turned unto Thee repentant, and lo! I am of those who surrender (unto Thee).
- "A fetus is defined as being viable if it has the ability to 'potentially able to live outside the mother's womb [that is, can survive], albeit with artificial help.' In the fifties viability was reached about 30 weeks after conception. Modern medical technology changed that to 25 weeks in the seventies. Now viability continues to be pushed further and further back in the pregnancy and is now as early as 19 weeks.
21 and 22 week premature babies are now supported routinely, and have a good chance of survival. By 24 weeks after conception, premature babies have a 40% chance of reaching adulthood without any major complications. By 28 weeks, the chance is 90%. By 29 weeks, survival is almost definite. (Note: These percentages are from reports written during the late 1980s. Current survival rates are most likely much higher.)"
Fetal Development/Viability - Abortioninfo