Quran and Semen Production
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This article analyzes the Qur'anic idea of semen production from between the sulb and the tara’ib.
Human semen comprises the product of 4 glands: the testes produce sperm cells, while the fluid in which they are carried comes from seminal vesicles (behind the bladder), the prostate gland (below the bladder), and from the bulbourethral glands (below the bladder).
Towards the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st century, as part 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 from between the sulb and the tara’ib, but also to demonstrate it as an instance of divine foreknowledge. Several specific apologies and interpretations have been proposed, critiqued, and often withdrawn. This article provides an overview of the general claims made as well as their critiques.
Arabic: خُلِقَ مِن مَّآءٍ دَافِقٍ
Transliteration: Khuliqa min main dafiqin
Literal: He is created from a water gushing out
Maa' (water) was a common Arab euphemism for semen.
Yusuf Ali: proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs.
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.
Arabic: يخرج من بين الصلب والترائب
Transliteration: Yakhruju min bayni alssulbi waalttara-ibi
Literal: It emerges/appears from between the spine and the rib bones.
A note on the English word 'loins'
Islamic sources often present the word loins in English translations of this verse, presenting the euphemistic sense of the word, which refers to the reproductive areas of a man. However, this meaning is secondary to its primary meaning which is the lumbar portion of the back, as defined by 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.
It's secondary, euphemistic meaning in the O.E.D. is defined as follows:
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 goes on to quote a phrase of the Arabs that features sulb, translating it and explaining as follows:
(Sperma is a Late Latin word meaning seed, semen).
Supporting evidence in other verses and hadith
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. Verse 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 clearly the case in other verses such as Quran 6:31.
Arabic: مِنۢ بَنِىٓ ءَادَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ
Transliteration: min banee adama min thuhoorihim thurriyyatahum
Literal: from the children of Adam, from their backs their offspring
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.
The most prominent apologetic explanations are as follows:
- Drs. Maurice Bucaille and A.K. Giraud: Sulb and tara’ib refer to the sexual areas of the man and woman.
- Ahmed A. Abd-Allah: Accepts and extends Bucaille’s assumption, and claims that all the acknowledged translations and tafsirs are in error, as sulb and tara’ib does not refer to a man’s backbone and ribs, but to the man’s “hardening” (i.e. penis) and a woman’s erogenous zones (not including the vagina).
- Dr. Zakir Naik: Sulb and tara’ib refers to the backbone and ribs of both sexes, however the verses refer only to the gonads in the embryonic stage, and not to adults in the act of sexual reproduction.
- Dr. Jamal Badawi: The verses refer not to semen production but to the blood of the aorta as the ‘gushing fluid poured forth’.
- Tafsir Ibn Kathir: Sulb refers to the man’s backbone, and tara’ib refers to the woman’s chest.
- Tafsir al-Jalalayn - issuing from between the loins, of the man, and the breast-bones, of the woman.
- Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs- (That issued from between the loins) of a man (and ribs) the ribs of a woman.
- Muhammad Asad: Sulb refers to the man’s loins and tara’ib refers to the woman’s pelvic arch.
- Moiz Amjad makes three claims; a) Sulb and tara’ib refers to the blood supply of the testes emanating from between the man’s back and ribs, b) The embryonic gonads originate in the area as per Dr Zakir Naik, and c) The sulb and tara’ib region is a euphemism for the male sexual organ.
- Yusuf Ali: Backbone is a symbol of man's strength. Man's seed is a metaphor which flows between the backbone and the ribs.
`(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."
While there is evidence that sulb can mean “hardening” and thus, the penis, there is no evidence that tara’ib can mean the vagina. Bucaille and Giraud appear to have assumed that tara’ib means the ’sexual areas of the woman’, without providing supporting evidence. Even if tara'ib means what Bucaille and Giraud take it to mean, the term, 'sexual areas of the woman' is too vague, it would appear, to be meaningful. To suggest that it means the vagina is merely an assumption, and may constitute equivocation.
Ahmed A. Abd-Allah
Abd-Allah extends Bucaille’s proposition, providing dictionaries and tafsirs to support his case that sulb means ‘hardening’ and tara’ib means the sexual areas of the woman.
Here is Abd-Allah's definition of sulb:
Almost all the commonly available translations of the Qur'an refer to sulb as the backbone, though some refer to loins. Even Ibn Kathir accepts backbone. Wehr, as a dictionary of modern standard Arabic, is a less reliable source for determining the meanings of words in the Qur'an than is Tafsir Ibn Kathir.
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.
Abd-Allah’s reference to Ibn Kathir’s tafsir also appears disingenuous, as he includes only the one 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).
“Now let man but think From what he is created! He is created from A drop emitted – Proceeding from between The back bone and the ribs.” [Al-Qur’aan 86:5-7]In embryonic stages, the reproductive organs of the male and female, i.e. the testicles and the ovaries, begin their development near the kidney between the spinal column and the eleventh and twelfth ribs. Later they descend; the female gonads (ovaries) stop in the pelvis while the male gonads (testicles) continue their descent before birth to reach the scrotum through the inguinal canal. Even in the adult after the descent of the reproductive organ, these organs receive their nerve supply and blood supply from the Abdominal Aorta, which is in the area between the backbone (spinal column) and the ribs. Even the lymphatic drainage and the venous return goes to the same area.
The biology presented here is incorrect. The original position of the cells destined to develop into spermatogonia (sperm producing cells) is not ventro-medial to the kidneys (where they develop) but in the wall of the yolk sac:
Testes and ovaries are derived from the mesodermal epithelium (mesothelium) lining the posterior abdominal wall, the underlying mesenchyme and the primordial germ cells.The primordial germ cells form in the wall of the yolk sac during week 4. They later migrate into the developing gonads at week 6 and differentiate into the definitive germ cells (oogonia / spermatogonia).
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.
This cross-sectional diagram of the human embryo shows the gonads at or around the level of the placenta:
As a result, it is not correct that the embryonic testes is located specifically between the spinal column and the eleventh and twelfth ribs as the gonadal or genital ridge (precursor of the gonads) is commonly believed to lie medial to the lower part of the mesonephros, while the adult kidney actually develops from the metanephros.
It is 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. It should also be noted that 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's explanation does not differentiate between the mesonephros and the metanephros.
If Naik’s implied association between embryonic and adult anatomical positions were nonetheless accepted, the explanation is inaccurate because in the condition of cryptorchidism where the testes is undescended, the highest position of the undescended testes is below the kidney.
It should also be noted that 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.
The interpretation of a ‘drop emitted, proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs’ to mean the embryonic development of the testes appears disingenuous, as the ‘drop emitted’ suggests 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 irrelevant and appears to serve as a red herring. Verse 85:6 speak about ‘a drop emitted’, commonly taken to mean semen and semen only, 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.
Badawi’s proposition repeats the error found in Naik’s proposition regarding blood circulation.
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.'
Semen does not emanate from the male’s backbone, nor do the female’s sexual secretions emanate from the ribs.
(6) he has been created out of a seminal fluid
(7) issuing from between the loins [of man] and the pelvic arch [of woman].
Asad's definition of tara’ib takes it to refer to the pelvic arch which is a specific part of the pelvis, however this definition is nowhere evidenced (Asad says the word is "rendered by me"). Dictionaries define tara'ib as the upper ribs.
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 again 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, repeatedly made aware of this error, ultimately withdrew his lengthy paper.
Moiz Amjad makes three claims:
1. Sulb and tara’ib refer to the blood supply of the testes emanating from between the man’s back and ribs.
This proposition repeats the error found in Naik’s proposition regarding blood circulation.
2. The embryonic gonads originate in the area (as per Zakir Naik).
This proposition repeats the error found in Naik’s general proposition.
3. The sulb and tara’ib region is a euphemism for the male sexual organ.
Amjad argues this 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 that the sulb and tara’ib are euphemisms for the male and female sexual organs. 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. Additionally, 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, which could easily and clearly been described directly or through various, clear euphemisms.
Tahir Ul-Qadri makes the following claim:
is created from a gushing fluid that is issuedfrom between sacrum and symphisis pubis (86:5-7)"
There is no evidence that tara'ib can be translated as pubic symphysis (see the Muhammad Asad section above). 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. This appears to be a Texas sharpshooter fallacy, where the focus is only on the similarities between two sets of information so that a conclusion can be drawn while ignoring the differences. Qadri, in his analysis, also ignores the testicles which produce the essential sperms. These are not situated in the zone mentioned, and are rather below the symphisis.
- Yusuf Ali does not state what he means by seed: Sperm, semen, ovum or zygote. This deserves to 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. It follows that if "seed" is taken to refer to one sex, this must be incorrect; but if it refers to both sexes, 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, 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.
- Mentioning the medulla oblongata here appears to serve no purpose relevant to Ali's interpretation.
This claim takes the meaning of the verse to say that the force for ejaculation comes from between the backbone and the ribs. The verse itself, however, only mentions a "liquid flowing" and not its cause.
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. Additionally, 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.
Though the ribcage is roughly cylindrical, the uterus is never inside it. Further, the embryo is already "created" much before pregnancy since the verse refers to fertilisation. The liquid being discussed here never flows anywhere close to a woman's ribs.
This is partly similar to the claim of tara'ib meaning uterus; a baby has nothing to do with its mother's ribs. If one were to describe the emergence of a baby by referring to external organs, one would have better said "between backbone and abdomen", not ribs. In all major translations, verse 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"), hence it is only a fluid that is said to emerge.
This is not true. The entire process of spermatogenesis from a spermatogonium to a sperm occurs in various regions of the testicles.
Other, broad concerns
These propositions are frequently conflicting, 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 or the ‘hardening’ or the loins. These varying interpretations confirm the essential ambiguity of the scriptural texts.
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.
- Reproduction - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Reproduction
- Mistranslated Verses - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Mistranslated Verses
- The Quran on Semen Production
- No Scientific Problems (Errors?!?) in the Quran
- Science in Quran: Ambiguity of Human Embryology
- Hippocratic Writings , op. Cit., 317-8
- Sam Shamoun has, for example, considered some of these ideas in the articles found here and here.
- 86. At-Tariq - The Morning Star (سورة الطارق) - Revealed in Makkah (English: Literal) - IslamicNature, accessed November 15, 2011
- sulb - Lane's Lexicon Book I page 1712
- thahr - Lane's Lexicon Book I page 197
- tara'ib - Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 301
- Taihung Duong, Ph.D., "Urogenital system embryology", Indiana University School of Medicine, accessed February 9, 2014 (archived), http://web.indstate.edu/thcme/duong/EMBRYOL.html.
- genetics basics
- Sam Shamoun, "A Christian Response to Dr. Jamal Badawi's "Seven Wonders of The Quran"", Answering-Islam, accessed February 9, 2014 (archived), http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/wonders.htm.
- "A Quranic Journal: Surah at-Tariq ayah 7", Al-Muhajabah, November 13, 2002 (archived from the original), http://archive.is/UJp0t.
- Embryology in the Qur'an Much Ado about Nothing
- See images here   
- Yusuf Ali, Abdullah. The Meaning of the Glorious Quran. p. 446.
- 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.