Semen Production in the Quran
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Towards the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st century, drawing on the work of a broad and largely Saudi-financed movement to demonstrate the concordance of Islamic scriptures and modern science, attempts have been made to not only defend the Qur'anic idea of semen production (found in Quran 86:6-7) from between the sulb (literally "backbone") and the tara’ib (literally "ribs"), but also to demonstrate it as an instance of divinely inspired scientific foreknowledge, or, as more commonly referred to, a scientific miracle of the Quran. Several specific interpretations advocating the miracle have been proposed, critiqued, and withdrawn - none, however, have been welcomed by the professional scientific or historian community.
Professional historians hold that the discussion of embryology found in the Quran, as with most discussion of natural phenomena in the scripture, was intended only to inspire awe in its audience by drawing their attention towards amazing natural phenomenon they already knew of (or thought they knew of). Historians hold this perspective because it would not have made sense for the Quran to discuss scientific facts with an audience who, unaware of what was being discussed, would have been unable to appreciate the discussion's significance. Classical Islamic scholars, living in ages prior to the advent of modern science, tended to agree with this view. By contrast, modern Islamic scholars have generally come to hold that these discussions of natural phenomena found in the Quran were intended as miracles predictive of modern science. In addition to entailing the reconciliation of the Quran with modern science, this modern perspective confounds traditional interpretations regarding the significance of these verse and can thus be considered revisionary.
The most common of these revisionary perspectives which advocate a miraculous interpretation of the Quran via its reconciliation with modern science include that of Drs. Maurice Bucaille and A. K. Giraud (according to which sulb and tara’ib refer to the sexual areas of the male and female), Ahmed A. Abd-Allah (according to which all acknowledged translations and tafsirs are in error, as sulb and tara’ib refer instead to to the male's “hardening” penis the female's erogenous zones other than the vagina), Dr. Zakir Naik (according to which sulb and tara’ib refer to the backbone and ribs of both sexes and where only the gonads in the embryonic stage are being described rather than a male and female in the act of sexual reproduction), Dr. Jamal Badawi (according to which the verses refer not to semen production but to the blood of the aorta as the ‘gushing fluid poured forth’), Muhammad Asad (according to which sulb refers to the male's loins and tara'ib to the female's pelvic arch), Moiz Amjad (according to which sulb and tara'ib refer to the blood supply for the testes emanating from the backbone and ribs, where only the gonads in the embryonic stage are being described rather than a male and female in the act of sexual reproduction, and where the sulb and tara'ib 'region' alluded to are special euphemisms for the sexual organs), and Yusuf Ali (according to which the backbone is only symbolically alluded to as a symbol of male strength where semen flows between the backbone and ribs).
While the implications pursued by the interpretations of modern and classical Islamic scholars differ (with only the former aspiring to a scientific miracle), some classical scholars also tried to explain the apparent disagreement of a reading entailing the backbone and ribs with what they conjecturally held to be the process behind semen production involving the testes. While the role of the testes in semen production would only be established incontrovertibly with modern science, the pre-modern intuition regarding the role of the testes was strong enough, at least in some cases, to bring classical scholars to attempt a reading similar to those almost universally favored by modern Islamic scholars today (listed in the preceding paragraph). One of the most famous pre-modern source to attempt such a reading is found in the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, which, while reading tara'ib as the female's 'breast-bones', takes sulb to mean the male's 'loins'. The classical Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs advances a similar reading, involving the male's 'loins' and female's 'ribs'. Other classical sources, such as Tafsir Ibn Kathir, straightforwardly read sulb and tara'ib to refer to the male's 'backbone' and female's 'chest' respectively.
Semen production in Islamic scriptures
There is relatively little disagreement over the proper translation of Quran 86:6. The only recurrent disagreement between translations is over whether the word maa should be translated literally as 'water' or generalized to 'fluid'. Most translations opt for the former translation, which is accurate to the Arabic text, as opposed to the latter, which amounts to a metaphorical interpretation. No scholar has expressed disagreement with the fact that the word for water (maa) was the standard Arabic euphemism for 'semen' - many translations have included this point in their footnotes on the verse.
Corpus translation (literal): He is created from a water [maa, the word 'water' was the standard Arabic euphemism for semen], ejected,
Transliteration: Khuliqa min main dafiqin
As can be seen in the competing translations listed below, there is significant disagreement among Islamic translations and controversy surrounding the translation of the subsequent verse, Quran 86:7.
Corpus translation (literal): Coming forth from between the backbone and the ribs.
Transliteration: Yakhruju min bayni alssulbi waalttara-ibi
Pickthal: that issued from between the loins and ribs.
Arberry: issuing between the loins and the breast-bones.
Shakir: coming from between the back and the ribs.
Sarwar: which comes out of the loins and ribs.
Khalifa: from between the spine and the viscera.
Hilali/Khan: proceeding from between the back-bone and the ribs.
Malik: that is produced from between the loins and the ribs.
QXP: that issued from between tough rocks and mingled dust.
Maulana Ali: coming from between the back and the ribs.Free Minds: it comes out from between the spine and the testicles.
The word sulb, translated as 'loins'
Many Islamic translations opt to translate the word sulb in Quran 86:7 as 'loins', evoking the euphemistic sense of the word 'loins' which alludes to the reproductive organs of a male. This sense of the word 'loins' is secondary to its primary sense, which refers to the lumber portion of the back (hence the word sirloin, which refers to '(a piece of) meat from the back of an animal near the tail or from the top part of the back legs'). Both senses of the word are accounted for in the Oxford English Dictionary.
1. a. In the living body. Chiefly pl. The part or parts of a human being or quadruped, situated on both sides of the vertebral column, between the false ribs and the hip-bone.
2. Chiefly Biblical and poet. This part of the body, regarded: a. as the part of the body that should be covered with clothing and about which the clothes are bound; so, to gird (up) the loins (lit. and fig.), to prepare for strenuous exertion.
The Lane's Lexicon of Classical Arabic definition for sulb includes the following:
Lane also quotes an Arab saying that features sulb, translating and explaining it as follows (sperma is a Late Latin word meaning seed, or semen):
Supporting evidence in other verses and hadiths
Independent corroboration that sulb in the Qur'an refers to the back or backbone is found in another verse on the same subject using a different word for back. Quran 7:172 says that the offspring of the children of Adam are 'from their backs (loins)'. Instead of sulb, the word here is thahr, which means the back, as is also the case in other verses such as Quran 6:31.
Corpus: And (remember) when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying): Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify. (That was) lest ye should say at the Day of Resurrection: Lo! of this we were unaware;
Arabic: مِنۢ بَنِىٓ ءَادَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْTransliteration: min banee adama min thuhoorihim thurriyyatahum
One other verse in the Qur'an uses the word sulb. In this case there is no mention of tara'ib. It is an example of the simple Arabic phrase mentioned in Lane's Lexicon (see above), based on the belief that the seed of men proceed from their backs.
Proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs
This concludes the description started in ayah 5. The following is an excerpt of commentary on this passage, from Tafsir Ibn Kathir:
- 'Referring to the creation of man from a drop of fluid gushing forth from between the backbone and the ribs, Allah emphasizes the inherent weakness of man... Allah says that man has been created from a mix of seminal fluid of man which gushes forth from the backbone and the yellowish fluid of woman that flows from her ribs.'
Modern revisionary perspectives
"(Man was fashioned from a liquid poured out. It issued (as a result) of the conjunction of the sexual area of the man and the sexual area of the woman. [...] The sexual area of the man is indicated in the text of the Qur'an by the word sulb (singular). The sexual areas of the woman are designated in the Qur'an by the word tara'ib (plural). [...] This is the translation which appears to be most satisfactory."
Critics have pointed out that while a case can be made that sulb means “hardening” and thus, metaphorically, "penis", there is no comparable case that tara’ib can mean "vagina". Bucaille and Giraud hold that tara’ib means the ’sexual areas of the woman’ but do not provide evidence to this end save the quote produced by Bucaille above (which itself gives no justification for this reading). Critics also argue that if tara'ib does mean what Bucaille and Giraud take it to mean, 'sexual areas of the woman' is too vague and speculative an interpretation to be meaningfully accurate or constitutive of a scientific miracle.
Ahmed A. Abd-Allah
Abd-Allah extends Bucaille’s interpretation, providing dictionaries and tafsirs to support his case that sulb means ‘hardening’ and tara’ib means the sexual areas of the woman. Abd-Allah defines sulb as follows:
Critics note that almost all the commonly available translations of the Qur'an refer to sulb as the backbone, though some refer to loins. Even classical authorities such as Ibn Kathir accept the meaning of the word as "backbone". Additionally, Hans Wehr, a dictionary of modern standard rather than classical Arabic, is an unreliable source for determining the meanings of words in the Qur'an.
Critics also argue that Abd-Allah’s proposition is undercut by the definitions of tara’ib he provides. He does not show that the tafsirs and dictionaries explain tara’ib to mean vagina. Tara’ib is defined as the upper chest or ribs, or according to some sources can also mean the two legs, two arms or two eyes. While erogenous zones are important in foreplay, the sexual act must be consummated through the vagina.
Finally, critics argue that Abd-Allah’s reference to Ibn Kathir’s tafsir is misleading, as it includes only the half of the description which supports his case (i.e. that tara’ib refers to the woman) and excludes the other half that contradicts it (i.e. that tara’ib is the woman’s ribs).
Critics argue that Zakir Naik incorrectly present the biology of the phenomenon he describes above. The original position of the cells, they note, are destined to develop into spermatogonia (sperm producing cells) and is not ventro-medial to the kidneys (where these cells develop) but the wall of the yolk sac:
The full argument of the critics runs as follows. If Naik’s assertion that the verse refers to the embryonic testes is accepted, it is not evident whether the gonads are located where he claims, i.e. between the spinal column and the eleventh and twelfth ribs. A cross-sectional diagram of the human embryo shows the gonads at or around the level of the placenta.
Consequently, it cannot be said that the embryonic testes is located between the spinal column and the eleventh and twelfth ribs as the gonadal or genital ridge (precursor of the gonads) is generally held to lie medial to the lower part of the mesonephros, while the adult kidney actually develops from the metanephros.
It is likewise incorrect to assume the position of the embryonic gonads from the position of the adult kidneys, as the embryonic positions of gonads and kidneys are not the same as their adult positions. Gonads descend, while kidneys enlarge and ascend. Also, the developing gonads are ventro-medial to the mesonephros (i.e. the embryonic kidney) and not the metanephros (which would develop into the adult kidney). Zakir Naik does not differentiate between the mesonephros and the metanephros.
If Naik’s implied association between embryonic and adult anatomical positions were accepted, the explanation given is inaccurate because in the condition of cryptorchidism where the testes is undescended, the highest position of the undescended testes is below the kidney.
Additionally, the inferior pole of the kidney lies around L3 (the third lumbar vertebra), such that the embryonic testes must be below L3. The twelfth rib does not extend below L2. And because the testes are below the kidneys, there is no possibility that the testes were ever between the ribs and the backbone either in the embryonic or the adult (as with cryptorchidism) stage.
Moreover, the interpretation of a ‘drop emitted, proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs’ to mean the embryonic development of the testes is misleading, as the ‘drop emitted’ implies a fully developed and functional testes, rather than an embryonic structure. Embryonic testes do not emit, ejaculate, gush forth, pour forth, spurt or ejaculate any substance; only peri- and post-pubertal testes do.
Naik’s explanation of the nerve, blood and lymphatic circular from the abdominal aorta is not relevant to the phenomenon being discussed. Quran 85:6 speaks about ‘a drop emitted’, commonly taken to mean semen, as this drop is directly responsible for human reproduction, something which cannot be claimed for nerve signals, blood or lymph. Circulation and nerve supply also do not correlate with embryonic origin. For example, the blood supply, lymphatics and nerve supply of the lower limbs originate in the abdomen and pelvis. This does not mean the lower limbs embryonically originated in the abdomen and pelvis.
According to critics, Badawi’s proposition repeats the error found in Naik’s proposition regarding blood circulation.
(6) he has been created out of a seminal fluid
(7) issuing from between the loins [of man] and the pelvic arch [of woman].
*The plural noun tara'ib, 'rendered by me as "pelvic arch", has also the meaning of "ribs" or "arch of bones"; according to most of the authorities who have specialized in the etymology of rare Quranic expressions this term relates specifically to female anatomy (Taj al-'Arus).
Asad's definition of tara’ib takes it to refer to the pelvic arch which is a specific part of the pelvis, however, as critics point out, this definition is nowhere evidenced (Asad says the word is "rendered by me"). Dictionaries define tara'ib as the upper ribs.
Critics argue that if Asad's definition of sulb as the male loins (in the modern sense of the word loins, rather than its old and primary meaning of the lower back) as well as his definition of tara'ib are accepted, his proposition that sexual reproduction is the consequence of a union between the male loins and the female pelvic arch is still inaccurate.
Hamza Tzortzis, on his website, repeats Muhammad Asad's perspective while implying that the pelvic arch definition comes from Taj al-Arus, which he cites directly for this claim. Asad sought only to evidence the relationship of the word tara'ib to "female anatomy" by citing Taj al-Arus, while providing the definition of "pelvic arch" himself. Tzortzis, after repeatedly being made aware of this error, ultimately withdrew his lengthy paper.
Moiz Amjad makes three claims. Firstly, Amjad repeats an idea found in Zakir Naik's work and states that sulb and tara’ib refer to the blood supply of the testes emanating from between the man’s back and ribs. According to critics, this idea makes the same error regarding blood circulation that is found in Naik's work. Secondly, also replicating Zakir Naik, Amjad states that the embryonic gonads originate in the area described in the Quran rather than ending up in this position in the fully developed human body. Here again, critics argue that Amjad makes the same general error made by Naik. Thirdly, Amjad states that the sulb and tara’ib region alluded to in the verse is in fact special euphemisms for the sexual organs.
Amjad argues this third point by drawing lines on pictures of a human skeleton, so that all parts of the body lying between the relevant bones and the opposing surface of the body are included.
Amjad also argues, to this end, that the sulb and tara’ib are special euphemisms for the male and female sexual organs respectively. There exist in Arabic, however, numerous other, more direct euphemisms for these two organs, and sulb and tara'ib are no where else used euphemistically in this sense in classical Arabic literature, as critics have pointed out. Amjad provides not explanation for why a novel, esoteric, and unclear pair of euphemisms should be employed by the Quran where so many other diverse and well-established euphemisms are available, especially in a textual and historical context where the proposed euphemisms could be acutely misleading.
Critics also note that since sperm never flows between separate organs, and always flows inside a single organ, it is very strange that the Qur'an should make an unclear euphemistic reference to two organs in order to refer to just one of those organs (after all, the semen discussed in the verse emanates from only the male organ, and not the female), which could easily and clearly been described directly or through various, clear euphemisms. To critics, if these words may be read as both euphemistic and metaphorical, then essentially any word in the Quran could be read in this manner, permitting infinitely malleable readings - and while modern literary theorists may make a case for this method in the abstract, it cannot be said to be useful in determining the original, intended meaning of a historical text.
Arabic words like many other languages often carry more than one meaning of a single word. For instance the Arabic word salat has 60 meanings. ... Moreover the seminal passages do indeed lie between the sacrum referred to as sulb in the Qurā’nic verse and the symphisis pubis referred to as tarā’ib.
Critics argue that there is no evidence presented or extant that tara'ib could mean "pubic symphysis" (see Muhammad Asad). To critics, if Qadri's claim of a single word having a large number of meanings were true and applicable in this case, tara'ib could be taken to refer to many organs other than the pubic symphisis, which have no relationship with the place where semen flows. In focusing only on the similarities between two sets of information, critics argue, Qadri draws a conclusion while ignoring key differences. They also not that Qadri, in his analysis, also does not identify the description found in the Quran with the testes themselves, which is where the phenomenon described takes place--the testes are not situated in the zone mentioned, but are rather below the symphisis.
According to critics, Yusuf Ali does not state what he means by seed. Specifically, he does not specify whether the word refers to sperm, semen, ovum or zygote. This, in the view of critics, must be clarified as the human embryo does not emerge from either male fluid or the female ovum alone, but from a combination of the two, with its components emerging from different biological regions. If "seed" is taken to refer to one sex, this is incorrect; if it refers to both sexes, then the interpretation of emergence from between backbone and ribs must be valid for both the male and female products.
Ali takes the role of the backbone to be symbolic, suggesting that just as the backbone is crucial to the life of a man, so also it must be crucial to the production of a man's sperm, and hence child. This metaphorical interpretation, critics suggest, appears strained and lacks any sort of precedent or evidence; the backbone has never been understood to relate in any way to one's offspring.
Finally, critics argue that mentioning the medulla oblongata here serves no purpose relevant to Ali's interpretation.
The spinal cord and nerves
According to a somewhat more obscure modern re-reading of Quran 86:7, the functioning of two spinal cord centers located between vertebrae and ribs connecting spinal cord and sex organs, coupled with the nerves controlling valves around the urethra, together cause ejaculation. Those espousing this interpretation argue that a line drawn from the tip of the coccyx to the upper portion of either seminal vesicle and extended forward touches the ribcage. Thus, the seminal vesicles from which the semen spurts out, lie between the ribs and the coccyx (lower back, loin, backbone).
This reading takes the meaning of the verse to say that the impetus or nervous command for ejaculation comes from between the backbone and the ribs. Critics argue that the verse itself, however, only mentions a "liquid flowing" and does not refer to its cause which, along this logic, could very well be traced back to the brain itself. Moreover, critics rebut, the ribs are above the seminal vesicles which are above the tip of the coccyx when a standing person's anatomy is viewed. The top of the seminal vesicles falls between the bottom of the coccyx and the bottom of the rib-cage on the above mentioned line, the vesicle is not between the loins and ribs. It is noted that, in addition to this, the role of the prostate glands (source of 25-30% of semen), testes (2-5%) and bulbourethral glands (up to 1%) is not considered in this analysis.
This modern interpretation then concludes with the following three ideas. Firstly, the word tara’ib refers to the woman’s uterus, since the rib cage surrounds it during pregnancy. Secondly, the verse refers to humans emerging from between the backbone and ribs, so it is about a baby and not sperm. And thirdly, the germ cells which later become sperms are formed near the backbone.
To the first of these ideas, critics respond that though the ribcage is roughly cylindrical, the uterus is never inside it. And the embryo is already "created" much before pregnancy since the verse refers to fertilization. The liquid being discussed here never flows anywhere close to a woman's ribs.
To the second of these ideas, critics argue that this is partly similar to the claim of tara'ib meaning uterus and that a baby has nothing to do with its mother's ribs. The idea here is that if one were to describe the emergence of a baby by referring to external organs, one would have said "between backbone and abdomen", rather than ribs. In all major translations, Quran 86:7 (coming from between the backbone and the ribs) is an incomplete sentence which continues from 86:6 ("He is created from a gushing fluid"), and so it is only a fluid that is said to emerge.
Critics find the third of these ideas to be straightforwardly false from a factual standpoint. They argue that the entire process of spermatogenesis from a spermatogonium to a sperm occurs in various regions of the testicles and not the "backbone".
Many, mutually exclusive interpretations
Critics often note that the many modern re-readings of Quran 86:7 are conflicting and mutually-exclusive, such that if any one is correct, the remainder must be incorrect. For instance, Ibn Kathir refers to tara’ib as a female organ, while other tafsirs claim it belongs to the man. Another conflict is the definition of sulb to mean either the backbone, the "hardening", or the loins. To critics, these varying interpretations confirm the essential ambiguity of the scriptural texts.
The meaning of min bain
Another point alluded to by Dr. Campbell, is that the phrase min bain which literally means “from between”. If this interpretation is accepted, which seems to be the case from a reading of the commonly accepted translations, then one must also note that semen emanates from the penis, and not from between the penis and the vagina. To be strictly correct, semen emanates from the penis into the vagina. This point seems to rule out tara’ib from anything to do with the female sexual partner.
- Scientific Miracles in the Quran
- Scientific Errors in the Quran
- Scientific Errors in the Hadith
- Reproduction - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Reproduction
- Mistranslations of Islamic Scripture (English) - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Mistranslated Verses
- Hippocratic Writings (Penguin Classics, 1983) pp. 317-318
- Sam Shamoun has, for example, considered some of these ideas in the articles found here and here.
- "Loin", Cambridge Dictionary
- thahr - Lane's Lexicon Book I page 197
- tara'ib - Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 301
- genetics basics
- Embryology in the Qur'an Much Ado about Nothing
- See images here   
- For a visual reference, see this medical diagram. Taken from: "Reproductive Health Module (SECTION I: Reproductive Anatomy and Physiology)", Columbia University: Mailman School of Public Health, accessed March 22, 2014 (archived), http://www.columbia.edu/itc/hs/pubhealth/modules/reproductiveHealth/anatomy.html.
- "Sura Tariq (The Night) no.86 (verses 1-10)", Montazar.net, September 18, 2003 (archived), https://web.archive.org/web/20030918233810/http://www.montazar.net/eng/menu/1/quran/tafseer/tafseer-of-holy-quran/light/html/086/86_1-10.htm.