Qur'anic Embryology
by Dr. Yusuf Needham and Dr. Butrus Needbeer

Of all the forms of pro-Islamic apologia, the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an is the most popular. This apologetic puts forth the rather dubious claim that the scientific accuracy of the Qur'an is proof of its divine origin. Of the various versions of this approach, the most popular is the claim that the Qur'an makes statements regarding embryonic development that no human being could have known at the time it was written. This article will investigate these claims, and offer a resource for those who would like to dispute the assertions made. [As is often the case with these debates on the veracity of Islam, Jochen Katz' Answering Islam site also proves to be a valuable resource; the site's section on the Qur'an and science opens with a number of very useful articles on Qur'anic embryology that we recommend.]

Keith Moore and the Ad-Verecundiam

There are a number of web sites[1], videos and books that offer the testimonies of highly regarded scientists on the topic of the "amazing accuracy" of the Qur'an. At first glance some may find this quite difficult to deal with. If such accomplished scientists as Dr. Keith Moore, Joe Leigh Simpson, Gerald C. Goeringer, and others are all praising the Qur'an, how can any non-scientist say otherwise? With regard to a discussion on embryology, Dr. Moore's name is particularly pertinent.

One possible approach was given to us in a rather illuminating article[2] that appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in January of 2002. Without the article skeptics could echo Aristotle's point that "what a man says does not necessarily represent what he believes,"[3] but with the piece one can now call to witness somewhat more solid examples. For example, Joe Leigh Simpson told the paper that he has been deliberately misquoted by sources that have him proclaiming that the statements in the Qur'an "were derived from God."[4] Dr. Goeringer stopped attending such conferences when his request for independent verification was denied, and was quoted as saying that "it was mutual manipulation, [...] we got to go places we wouldn't otherwise go to. They wanted to add some respectability to what they were publishing."[5] Thus we already see that some of these scientists do not believe what certain dawagandists would like us to think they believe.

As for Moore, we have questioned his motives before; exempli gratia: this site was the first to point out that Usaama bin Ladin helped to finance one of his text books (ironically, we broke this news the day before 911). Of course, aside from being interesting trivia, the bin Ladin connection only serves to poison the well. Regardless, the more interesting fact is that Moore himself has not converted to Islam. The irony of this fact was touched on by Imran Aijaz when he wrote: "I find it remarkable that a man would provide proof for the veracity of a religion to which he does not convert to himself!"[6]

We know that Dr. Moore is not a Muslim based first on the testimony of a Muslim who claimed to have witnessed Moore admit to such.[7] Even without such testimony, the above-mentioned Wall Street Journal article gave us a reason to believe that Moore had not converted to Islam:
    Prof. Moore declined to be interviewed. Reached in Toronto, he said he was busy revising his textbook and that "it's been 10 or 11 years since I was involved in the Quran."[8]
Indeed, it would be strange for a Muslim to not be involved with the Qur'an for over a decade; in fact, it is strange that a man would not be involved with a text he (allegedly) believes to be the word of God for over ten years! This moves us to question what Moore believes about the Qur'an, and what he thinks of his own exegesis. An interesting hint towards the answers to such questions can be found in a passage in a more serious edition of his text book (id est, without "Islamic additions"). In this work, the sum total of his thoughts on the Qur'an are as follows:
    Growth of science was slow during the medieval period, and few high points of embryological investigation undertaken during this time are known to us. However, it is cited in the Qur'an (seventh century A.D.), the Holy Book of the Muslims, that human beings are produced from mixture of secretions from the male and female. Several references are made to the creation of a human being from a nutfa (small drop). It also states that the resulting organism settles in the womb like a seed, 6 days after its beginning. Reference is also made to the leechlike appearance of the early embryo. Later, the embryo is said to resemble a "chewed substance." For more information about embryological references in the Qur'an, see Musallam (1990).[9]
First we realize that Moore is not at all familiar with the Qur'an. His claim about "6 days" is no where to be found in the text, thus we realize that Moore probably based his comments on what others told him was in the Qur'an - he had not investigated the text in depth for himself. Furthermore, when Moore recommends further reading for more information, mention of his own text book "with Islamic additions" is strikingly absent! Instead, he recommends the writings of Basim F. Musallam, who does not support the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an on emrbyology in any way. In fact, Musallam's position on the Qur'an's statements on embryology, as expressed in the work Moore recommended, is in stark contradistinction to the position held by many proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach; consider the following:
    The stages of development which the Qur'an and Hadith established for believers agreed substantially with Galen's scientific account. In De Semine, for example, Galen spoke of four periods in the formation of the embryo: (1) as seminal matter; (2) as a bloody form (still without flesh, in which the primitive heart, liver, and brain are ill-defined); (3) the fetus acquires flesh and solidity (the heart, liver, and brain are well-defined, and the limbs begin formation); and finally (4) all the organs attain their full perfection and the fetus is quickened. There is no doubt that medieval thought appreciated this agreement between the Qur'an and Galen, for Arabic science employed the same Qur'anic terms to describe the Galenic stages: (as in Ibn Sina's account of Galen): nutfa for the first, 'alaqa for the second, "unformed" mudgha for the third, and "formed" mudgha for the fourth.[10]
It is quite ironic that the text Moore recommends for further information on Qur'anic embryology has the holy writ being in agreement with the position of Galen! Of course, the irony does not end there. Note that on several web sites Dr. Moore is quoted as saying:
    Because the staging of human embryos is complex, owing to the continuous process of change during development, it is proposed that a new system of classification could be developed using the terms mentioned in the Qur'an and Sunnah. The proposed system is simple, comprehensive, and conforms with present embryological knowledge.
Under the Qur'anic scheme, the period of development from roughly the seventh to the twenty-sixth day would be termed "the alaqa stage," but amazingly, more than a decade later, even Moore himself neglects to employ this system in his regular textbook, employing instead the more comprehensive and complex stages that he always sided with. Rather than a single (alaqa) stage, the noted time frame is broken down into several stages, as is the case with other periods.[11]

Another interesting fact about Moore's more serious textbook is that while it does not lend much weight to the scientific-hermeneutic approach to Qur'anic embryology, it does give a small nod to a similar approach to an ancient Hindu text. In the portion that mentions the Qur'an, Moore also hints at amazement with the Garbha Upanishad in almost the same breath. Regarding this text, he writes:
    A brief Sanskrit treatise on ancient Indian embryology is thought to have been written in 1416 B.C. This scripture of the Hindus, called Garbha Upanishad, describes ancient ideas concerning the embryo. It states:
    From the conjugation of blood and semen the embryo comes into existence. During the period favorable to conception, after the sexual intercourse, (it) becomes a Kalada (one-day-old embryo). After remaining seven nights it becomes a vesicle. After a fortnight it becomes a sperical mass. After a month it becomes a firm mass [12]
This is quite fascinating, as readers can turn back four pages to the chart depicting the daily development of the embryo and see that indeed after a fortnight (which is two weeks) a cross-section of the embryo reveals that it is a spherical mass. Later parts of the Garbha Upanishad are actually a great deal less accurate, but Moore only shows readers the most judicious description, deftly excising the discrepancies and imprecisions. The implicit point is one that smacks in the face of Muslims: even the Mushrikeen have managed to stumble into writing things that can be correlated with modern embryology.

A Question of Logic and Methodology

Now that we have dealt with the inherent flaw in making an appeal to Dr. Moore's authority, more solid and general comments must be made regarding the procedures involved with the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an. The methodology behind such approaches to the text is highly problematic, and leads to a bit of a paradox. If Muslims had to wait fourteen centuries for an non-Arabic speaking non-Muslim scientist to "discover" the "true" meaning of a given statement in the Qur'an, then it follows that for those fourteen centuries the passage was too vague for any of the countless Muslim scholars to know what it really meant. If this is the case, then it cannot be considered a scientific statement, which is supposed to be clear and distinct from the outset. How can one claim that a text is clearly stating something if it took more than a thousand years to realize such? Obviously the language is certainly not precise and unambiguous.[13] One intriguing objection to the scientific-hermeneutic approach that comes from the aforementioned Muslim Imran Aijaz touches on its being circular:

    What's so amazing about interpreting the Qur'an scientifically and then just standing back stunned at the apparently miraculous reconciliation of science and the Qur'an? It reminds me of a 'Mr. Bean' episode where he writes Christmas cards out to himself, walks out of his apartment door, posts them through his own apartment door via the mail-slot and walks in a few seconds later. And to his wonderful surprise as interpreted by his mentality, he's received Christmas cards! Amazing! The whole enterprise does have a hidden circularity embedded into it.[14]
Now, we will not object to Muslims who simply argue, on the basis of faith, that if one starts from the premise that the Qur'an is the is the word of God (and treats such a belief as true, a priori), they can find ways to interpret the text as being in perfect harmony with science. However, we do strongly object to those who wish to argue that the scientific miracles of the Qur'an are so clear that it is obvious the Qur'an is the word of God. The issue here is an aggressive form of pseudo-apologia that is quite unfounded.

The form of thinking used to reach conclusions about the text is abduction (working backwards from results to causes). When employing abduction, one should have a reason for postulating a given antecedent. For example, if we find a box of cereal with a hole in it, and what look like mouse droppings around the box, we can use abduction to conclude that a mouse made the hole. Our argument is not fool-proof (it is actually deductively invalid), but nonetheless the conclusion is reasonable since we have observed mice doing these sorts of things.

Maybe an alien made the hole and planted or left behind what looked like mouse droppings, but were actually shell casings from an extraterrestrial fire-arm. Unfortunately we have never observed such an alien, thus such an antecedent, though possible, is far from justified. In light of Occam's razor, if we have a natural explanation for a given event, there is no need to postulate a supernatural or wholly fantastic explanation (particularly if such an explanation does not have good justification).

In these sorts of discussions on the text of the Qur'an, all that needs to be considered is whether or not it is plausible for such passages to come about by natural means. If this can be demonstrated, there is no need to consider whether the text was revealed by Allah. While this may seem unfair to the proponent of the scientific-hermeneutic approach, a natural explanation coupled with the fact that we have never observed a deity authoring a text makes a human author all the more plausible.

That serves as a general approach to critiquing the methodology of proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an, but with the issue of embryology specifically one should be aware of the core themes of argumentation employed. The basic (il)logic employed by those who push the embryological argument falls under the following rough rules:

    1. If multiple interpretations of a phrase or sentence are possible, assume the the most accurate interpretation is the one the author had intended.

    2. If multiple meanings are possible for a given word, assume those meanings that are convenient to the argument are the ones that were intended.

    3. If all the possible meanings are convenient, assume the author of the text had all the possible meanings in mind when he/she/it chose the relevant word.

    4. If a possible meaning can be a reference to something that bares any similarity to a biological event, assume it in fact is referring to that event.

    5. If a possible meaning can be correlated with multiple events, assume it was intended to refer to all those events.

    6. In the absence of time frames, presuppose the correct time frame.
These are the general rules by which the champions of this polemic play, even if these rules are only subconscious. As we examine the actual arguments, we will see more clearly how and when these rules are applied, as well as the problematic nature of the assumptions connected with these rules.

The Actual Arguments

One of the most popular pieces on the topic of Qur'anic embryology is Dr. Moore's article, A Scientist's Interpretation of References to Embryology in the Qur'an, which can be found on literally dozens of different web sites promoting the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an. The piece begins by making a reference to Soorat az-Zumar 39:6, a verse that reads as follows:

khalaqakum min nafsin waahidatin thumma ja'ala minhaa zawjahaa wa anzala lakum mina al-an'aami thamaaniyata azwaajin yakhluqukum fee butooni ummaahatikum khalqan min ba'di khalqin fee thulumaatin thalaathin dhaalikumu Allahu rabbukum lahu al-mulku la ilaha illa huwa faanna tusrafoona

He created you from a single man, then made from it its wife, and He has sent down eight kinds of cattle. He creates you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, in three veils of darkness, such is Allah your Lord. His is the kingdom, there is no god but He. How can you turn away?

The verse is more a rant on random things rather than any sort of amazingly accurate scientific statement. Nonetheless, the relevant part for Dr. Moore is first the portion that speaks of "creation after creation". However, Moore uses the Yusuf Ali translation, which renders khalqan min ba'di khalqin as "in stages" (note that khalq means "creation," thus the translation used above is more accurate than Yusuf Ali's generalization). Regarding man's knowledge of the fetus in the seventh century, Dr. Moore makes the astonishing claim that it is "unlikely that they knew that it developed in stages". Other sites have Dr. Marshall Johnson also denying the possibility that a mere mortal could have known at the time that the fetus developed in stages. Actually, Galen had stages for human development (which was touched on above by Musallam, and will be covered below), and Aristotle himself dealt with the issue of epigenesis in book II of his De Generatione Animalium. As Musallam notes:
    The belief that the fetus passes through different stages, that the organs are not all formed at once, but one after the other, is called epigenesis. On this issue Muslim religious thinkers had no quarrel with Aristotle, and both scientific traditions of medicine and natural philosophy emphasized epigenesis as the standard idea of fetal development.[15]
From there Moore continues his commentary on Soorat az-Zumar, making the odd claim that the "three veils of darkness" could be a reference to: "(l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane." Upon what this is based, Moore gives no indication, though such exegesis does seem to fall roughly under Rule IV (of the rules noted above). Why should we assume that the author of the Qur'an had these things in mind when he spoke of "three veils of darkness"? Surely the abdominal wall is not "inside the womb," so why not the uterine wall, the amnion, and the chorion? Why not the endometrium, the amnion and the chorion? Why note the uterine wall, endometrium, and amniochorionic membrane? The choice seems rather arbitrary.

While it is bad enough that Moore has given absolutely no justification for his correlation of the veils of darkness with these three things, many Muslims take it a step further and try to argue that no human being was aware of such at the time. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Even if we accept that Soorat az-Zumar is making reference to the abdominal wall, the uterine wall, and the amniochorionic membrane (despite the lack of evidence!), we can still note that people were in fact aware of these things in pre-Islamic times. The abdominal wall is (as should be obvious) simply the wall of the abdomen, and the uterine wall is simply the wall of the uterus. People knew about the uterus, and that it was inside the abdomen, so we've already scatched two "veils". As for the membrane, consider what Aristotle wrote:
    When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male [...] the more solid part comes together, the liquid is separated off from it, and as the earthy parts solidify membranes form all around it [...] Some of these are called membranes and others choria[.][16]
It should be obvious to anyone who does not have an emotional investment in this polemic that Aristotle not only describes what the Qur'an is alleged to be describing, but does so in much more detail. Aristotle actually mentions a meeting of the male and female contributions in the uterus. Furthermore, Aristotle mentions membranes called "choria" that form, and that this happens inside the uterus. Thus we have Aristotle mentioning the chorion, the uterus, and obviously this happens inside the abdomen, so there is your "threefold darkness."

Muslims who support the embryology polemic may argue that Aristotle only mentioned the chorion, but not the amnion. Such comments are wholly duplicitous, as it means that saying "threefold darkness" is clearly a reference to the abdominal wall, the uterus, and both the amnion and chorion at the same time. So, saying "choria" is only the chorion, but saying "veil/fold of darkness" clearly means the amniochorionic membrane? Indeed, the amnion and chorion are separate, but if we're going to focus on this so closely, why not just assume that the Qur'an got it wrong by not mentioning four folds of darkness (abdomen, uterus, amnion, chorion)?

It should further be noted that Galen spoke of the amnion and the chorion (the very words "amnion" and "chorion" were coined by the ancient Greeks!). Furthermore, Hindu philosophers were certainly aware of the amnion and the chorion, which were called the ulba and the jaraayu, respectively. As one orientalist scholar notes, "Jarayu is applied to [...] the outer membrane enveloping the embryo [... and] Ulva, or Ulba, is used for the inner membrane of the embryo."[17] Now one should find it quite silly that it is perfectly sensible for Aristotle and the Hindus to write such things, yet there is no way a person could have written "threefold darkness" as appears in the Qur'an.

With Soorat az-Zumar out of the way, we can get to the passage that sits at the center of the Qur'anic embryology polemic, Soorat al-Moominoon 23:12-14, which reads as follows:

wa laqad khalaqnaa al-insaana min sulaalatin min teenin thumma ja'alnaahu nutfatan fee qaraarin makeeni thumma khalaqnaa an-nutfata 'alaqatan fa-khalaqnaa al-'alaqata mudghatan fa-khalaqnaa al-mudghata 'izhaaman fa-kasawna al-izhaama lahman thumma anshaanaahu khalqan akhara fatabaaraka Allahu ahsanu al-khaaliqeena

And we created man from a portion of clay. Then we made him a drop in a firm place. Then we formed the drop into a clot, then we formed the clot into a morsel, then we formed the morsel into bones, then we clothed the bones with flesh. Then we brought it forth as another creation. Blessed is Allaah, the best of creators.

The relevant words in the above are drop (nutfa), clot (alaqa), morsel (mudgha), and bones (izhaam). Dr. Moore wants nutfa to mean "zygote" without any real justification. All the Muslim commentators had nutfa, which is from the Arabic natafa, for to drip, to dribble, to ooze, mean a reference to a seminal discharge. Rather laughably, Dr. Muhammad Saifullaah of Cambridge University noted that a drop can be round, and then further noted that "semen comes out as drops and ovum is also resembles a drop, i.e., it is round-shaped."[18] What a way to correlate "drop" with both the semen and the ovum! Of course, nutfa is not a reference to roundness - the shape is irrelvant, as nutfa is the result of dripping, dribbling, oozing (not necessarily a single drop in mid air). Interestingly, Maurice Bucaille noted that one commentator had it "describe what remains at the bottom of a bucket that has been emptied out."[19] Some have even tried to argue that because the Qur'an later refers to nutfa al-amshaaj ("mixed drop," or "mingled semen"), the plural amshaaj ("mixings") is a reference to chomosomes inside the zygote!

Moore goes on to interpret the word alaqa, yet now he is no longer using the Yusuf Ali translation (as Yusuf Ali translates alaqa as "clot of congealed blood"). The translation employed by Moore renders the word as "a leech-like structure." This is a rather strained translation. Indeed, one of the possible meanings of alaqa is "leech," but Dr. Moore (or those who advised him) chose "leech-like structure" so as to push the claim that the Qur'an means to argue that the embryo resembles a leech. Of course, the Qur'an does not say the embryo resembles or looks like an alaqa, rather it says it is an alaqa. Regardless, Moore sides with "leech" (see Rule II above), and then from there makes a huge logical leap, concluding that this means the Qur'an is stating that the embryo looks like a leech at 24 days, despite the fact that no date is given (see Rule VI).

The point was to then note the similarity between a 24 day old embryo and certain types of leeches. Of course, the logic simply doesn't follow. Another possible meaning (and indeed most translations side with this meaning) is "blood clot". Since this is a possible meaning, we have a natural explanation for a man using "alaqa" to describe the embryo. Of course, because there is no stage at which the embryo is a blood clot (or mass of congealed blood, which is one of the meanings Hans Wehr gave for alaqa), most proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach prefer not to choose that as the intended meaning. This is a perfect example of Rules I & II, and is also something that Imran Aijaz touched on when he wrote:
    Certain words and phrases in the Qur'an are open to multiple interpretation[s] and exegeses. What the proponents of the scientific miracles type polemic are trying to do is to selectively pick out the exegesis which supports their claims of scientific accuracy. This, I find to be very arbitrary, why not select the one which would conflict with science? The main reason is very simple. Because you already have a presupposition that the Qur'an cannot be wrong. But this is precisely what is being attempted at a demonstration, so the argument begs the question on what correct exegesis is.[20]
However, there are still several web sites that concede to the fact that one of the meanings of alaqa is blood clot. Interestingly, though, these sites claim that "the external appearance of the embryo and its sacs during the alaqah stage is similar to that of a blood clot." It is claimed that this is "due to the presence of relatively large amounts of blood present in the embryo during this stage". So we see that some even try to interpret blood clot to their advantage. But if this can be considered a scientific miracle, then why not also say the same about Galen, when he described the second stage of embryonic development being one where the embryo is "filled with blood"?[21]

Popular to these same sites is the claim that because the ayn-lam-qaf root from which alaqa is derived can also mean cling, be suspended, hang,[22] this can be correlated with a period where the embryo clings from or is suspended from the umbilical cord which is attached to the uterus. Of course, the umbilical cord is never mentioned, but if we're going to play such games, we can correlate Aristotle with the same period, in light of his far more descriptive depiction:
    So nature has first designed the two blood vessels from the heart, and from these smaller vessels branch off to the uterus, forming what is called the umbilicus [...] Round these is a skin-like integument, because the weakness of the vessels needs protection and shelter. The vessels join to the uterus like the roots of plants, and through them the embryo receives its nourishment.[23]
Aristotle's description is quite accurate, as in early development the umbilical cord is attached to the heart, the umbilical cord does have blood vessels inside it that bring nourishment via oxygen rich blood, and the umbilical cord does attach to the uterus via the blood vessels going into the wall (not unlike the roots of plants being in the ground).[24] It seems that even if we allow the proponents of the embryology polemic to make their logical leaps, similar correlations can be performed with Galen and Aristotle.

From there we move to mudgha, a word from a root that means to chew or bite. Based on this, one possible translations is "something chewed" (though it can also be a reference to a bite-sized morsel, and most translations render it as a small lump or bite sized piece). Proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach then make a wild logical leap and conclude that "chewed" is used as a reference to somites (the early traces of the spine that appear around 27 days). Such a correlation is laughable, but those who push this polemic actually try to do comparisons between a drawing a of a 28 day old embryo and a piece of gum that was deliberately bitten so as to resemble the image.

One wonders why, if the author of the Qur'an wanted to say that traces of the spine appear between 26 and 28 days, they did not just say so? To claim that the word "chewed" (or "bite sized morsel") is an accurate way of describing the first traces of the spine in the form of somites seems rather cautelous. Proponents of this polemic claim that this was a way to explain development in simple laymen's terms, but if that were the case one would again have to wonder why it took 1400 years for anyone to realize this was what the Qur'an was making reference to?

These same defenders of the polemic claim that this was the only way this event could be described in light of the language and understanding of the times. That's actually quite untrue, as a far better description was provided by Diocles of Carystus, who lived in the late-4th-to-early-3rd centuries BCE. Consider what Joseph Needham has written regarding Diocles:
    Diocles has a certain importance in the history of embryology; for Oribasius refers to him as the discoverer of the punctum saliens in the mammalian embryo, "on the ninth day a few points of blood, on the eighteenth beating of the heart, ON THE TWENTY-SEVENTH TRACES OF THE SPINAL CORD AND HEAD." He thus showed that the early development of chick and mammal was very alike. Plutarch also tells us that he occupied himself with the question of sterility. He described the human placenta, as well as embryos of twenty-seven and forty days, and he held that both male and female contribute seed in generation.[25]
While we will return to the issue of mudgha below, we should now move on to the issue of izhaam (bones). As was noted above, after the alaqa is turned into a mudgha, the Qur'an states fa-khalaqnaa al-mudghata izhaaman, or "then we formed the morsel into bones." Moore and his cohort try to change the translation to "out of the mudgha we formed bones," so as to give the impression that the bones are forming inside the embryo, rather than the entire object becoming bones. This brings to light the duplicitous nature that these people are taking to the text.

Consider that word khalaqnaa ("we created/formed") appears in three times in Soorat al-Moominoon 23:14: (1) khalaqnaa al-nutfata alaqatan - "we formed the nutfa into an alaqa"; (2) khalaqnaa al-alaqata mudghatan - "we formed the alaqa into a mudgha"; (3) khalaqnaa al-mudghata izhaaman - "we formed the mudgha into bones." So the question that needs to be asked is how one properly interprets the logical structure khalaqnaa X,Y.

As will be noted below, proponents of this polemic want izhaam to not actually be a reference to bone, but rather cartilaginous precursors to bone, thus we see that there are two possible (and rather different) usages of the logical structure khalaqnaa X,Y being employed. Does the logical structure mean "we formed the X into a Y," or does it mean "we caused a precursor to Y to form inside the X"? No person to put forth the polemic has ever explained which is the correct interpretation, or if both are possible how they know to use one and not the other. The reality is that khalaqnaa X,Y means "we formed the X into a Y," and there is no implication that the Y (much less something other than Y!) is only forming inside the X.

When we reach izhaam we find another problematic part of the verse. Consider that the text reads: khalaqnaa al-mudghata izhaaman, fa-kasawnaa al-izhaaman laHman. First note that khalaqnaa is past tense, and the pre-fix fa means "then." So the verse reads: "we formed the morsel into bones, then we clothed the bones with flesh." Thus, it implies bone forms before soft tissue, which is a blatant error, not to mention one that parallels Galen.[26]

As was alluded to above, there is an argument put forth by those who push this polemic that the "bones" are actually a reference to cartilaginous models that will later ossify. Of course, the text has izhaam, which only means bone - there is no reference to cartilage (Arabic: ghudhroof), so we see that the champions of this deceptive polemic are importing things. Furthermore, as was noted in the previous paragraph, the text has a past tense conjugation followed by the word "then" (fa), thus the logic of the text is that the bones were completed, finished, and then they were clothed with flesh. This does not square with the actual process that some wish to correlate the text with, where cartilaginous skeletal models ossify while muscle forms around them simultaneously.

With the above criticisms put forth, we can now consider the time frames being inserted into the text. In line with the logic of Rule VI, proponents of the embryology polemic assume the correct time frames even though no time frames are ever mentioned in the text. Interestingly, the ahaadeeth (extra-canonical Islamic traditions that allegedly record the words of Muhammad) give us insight into how the earliest Muslims understood these passages. Did they believe the alaqa was formed between days seven and 24? Did they believe the mudgha was formed around the 27th day? Consider the following hadith from Saheeh Bukhaaree Vol. 4, Bk 55, #549 (in certain editions it is listed as vol. 4, #3332):

Inna ahada kum yuhma'u khalquhu fee batni ummahi arba'eena yawman, THUMMA yakoonu 'alaqatan mithla dhalika, THUMMA yakoonu mudhghatan mithla dhalika

A human being is created in the womb of his mother for forty days, THEN he becomes an alaqa for an equivalent period [of time], THEN he becomes a mudgha for an equivalent period [of time][.]

So, according to one of the earliest texts on how to properly interpret the verses of the Qur'an, we are told that the embryo does not become an alaqa until the forty-first day, and does not become a mudgha until the eighty-first day! We see that some Muslims are suddenly willing to ignore their "authentic traditions" when they are no longer convenient. However, there are some who actually try and reinterpret the above tradition in a different way.

In the above text we put emphasis on the word thumma ("then"), as there are some who claim this hadith is referring to only a single forty day period (id est, all three stages happen within forty days). Of course, it is only those who have a deep emotional investment in this twisted polemic that would argue such. The text has clearly been understood as being a reference to three forty day periods; consider what Musallam wrote:
    [Soorat al-Hajj 22:5 and Soorat al-Moominoon 23:13-14] describe the first three stages of the foetus. The first stage of development, a period of forty days from conception, is the nutfa (semen). The second, also lasting forty days, is the 'alaqa ("blood-like clot"). And the third, another forty days, is the mudgha ("lump of flesh"). In these three early stages the foetus lacks the human soul and has only the life of plants and animals. But at the end of 120 days from conception, the foetus is ensouled. [...] The division of these stages into forty-day periods is not Quranic, but first occurs in the hadith:
    The Prophet said: Each of you is constituted in your mother's womb for forty days as a nutfa, then it becomes a [sic] 'alaqa for an equal period, then a mudgha for another equal period, then the angle is sent and he breathes the sould into it.[27]
Thus we see that even Muslim historians read the text the way we have (also note that the Hilaalee-Khan translation of Saheeh Bukhaaree also agrees with our translation). Of course, some may argue that Musallam, Hilaalee, and Khan are modern Muslims. That is fine, as I can also cite a medieval Muslim who understood this as three forty-day periods: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. Summarizing and quoting Ibn Qayyim's al-Tibyaan fee Aqsaam al-Qur'aan, (1st ed., Cairo, 1933), p. 337, Musallam wrote the following:
    Basing his [i.e. Ibn Qayyim's] opinion - an absolutely common Islamic opinion - on the hadith's timing of foetal development, he says that the foetus is ensouled and becomes human 'in the fourth of the forty day periods, after 120 days.'[28]
We should be able to close here, as the argument has been pretty much demolished in our opinion (though the readers will be the final judge). However, to show just how silly this polemic is, we are going to play by the same rules in order to find amazing embryonic information in the Bible. This does not mean we actually believe the Bible demonstrates knowledge of embryonic development that no man could have known at the time; rather it is only meant to show how such things could be found in any text when using the methodology employed by those who champion the Qur'anic embryology polemic.

A Scientific-Hermeneutic Approach to Job?

While some claim that the Qur'an contains information about conception and embryonic development that one could only know if they had a microscope or a deity whispering in their ear, far more amazing descriptions can be found in the always poetic book of Job. Consider the following description of embryonic development, which is both highly accurate and stunningly beautiful, that is found in Job 10:8-11:

Yadekha 'itsvooni va-ya'asooni yachad saveev vatval'eni. Z'kar-naa ki-khachomer 'asitani v'el-'afar t'shiveni. Halo khechalav tatikheni v'khagvina taqpi'eni. 'Or uvasar talbisheni uva'atsamot v'gidim t'shokhkheni.

Your hands formed me and made me - will you now absorb me? Remember that you formed me as if with clay - will you return me to dust? You poured me out like milk, and pulled me together like cheese. You clothed me with skin and flesh, and [inside me] did you interweave bones and sinews.

So now we can go through this step-by-step. First we should realize that the first two verses are a more accurate description of what proponents of the Qur'anic embryology apologetic refer to as "the mudgha stage." If it is claimed that something chewed is a reference to somites, then why not also assume that clay formed with hands is also a reference to somites? Note that when clay is handled a certain way with both hands, the result is that finger imprints are on corresponding sides, and these imprints resemble somites:

Through the process of molding, the hands slide over and press again, thus creating more finger imprints. The result is a lump of clay with multiple finger prints on it, and this clay in the process of being molded resembles a 28 day old embryo as much as a piece of chewed gum does:

Regarding the word mudgha, Dr. Muhammad Saifullaah, an ardent proponent of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an, argued as follows:
Of course, this would be a far more accurate way of explaining Job's description of the embryo's development being analogous to hands forming clay. Note that the appearance of somites change continuously just as finger imprints change in clay with each act of grabbing, squeezing, and molding. The embryo changes its overall shape but the structure derived from somites remains. Since new tissue masses appear in the embryo, the embryo also turns its position to adjust the centre of gravity with respect to its new mass. This is similar to the turning of the clay during molding, grabbing, and squeezing. Of course, with the embryo the new mass is similar to the mass that already exists, and this is analogous to the person molding the object adding more clay.

We need to ask ourselves, is Job's description of molding clay more similar or less similar to the developing embryo from 28 days onward than is the Qur'anic term mudgha? We need an objective way of determining which is more similar. Dr. Saifullaah and Dr. Moore are scientists, so why not let the scientific method be our guide and have an experiment?

The experiment will have two volunteers, one Muslim and one non-Muslim. The non-Muslim will mold clay, only using his hands, and the Muslim can chew gum or flesh or some other substance. Each will look at a picture of a 28 day old embryo. The non-Muslim will try to make the clay look like that image only using his hands, and his Muslim counterpart will try to make the gum/flesh look like that image only using their teeth. Then each will look at a picture of a 29 day old embryo, and will try to make my existing structure look like that image. The same will be done for day 30, day 31, day 32, et cetera. Of course the mass of the embryo increases from the formation of similar material brought in from the outside. So the non-Muslim can add clay, and his Muslim counterpart pop more gum/flesh into their mouth. We'll see whose creation looks more like the chart, and determine that to be the more accurate description.

Note that molded clay can look like a zygote, a nine month old child, and everything in between, thus this stunningly simple metaphore accurately describes the entire nine months. The verses that follow get deeper into the step-by-step process, therefore we will now move on to the description of a process where something is poured out like milk.

Remember that Dr. Saifullaah argued roughly that (1) nutfa can mean drop, (2) a drop is round, (3) semen comes out in drops, (4) the ovum is round, like a drop, therefore nutfa accurately describes the coming together of the semen and ovum. So too we can correlate the metaphorical "milk" in Job with both as well.

The oocyte is expelled from the ovary.
First, we can only correlate the "milk" with both the male semen and the female contribution during ovulation. Keep in mind the swelling of mamma/breasts before milk is emitted. This swelling can be compared to the swelling of the penis before semen is emitted or "poured out". Note that a female becomes pregnant during ovulation. It is during ovulation that the secondary oocyte is expelled. Dr. Moore notes that before the oocyte is expelled, "the ovarian follicle [...] undergoes a sudden growth spurt, producing cystic swelling or bulge on the surface of the ovary."[30] From there the stigma inside the ovary ruptures and the oocyte is expelled. Of course, the oocyte does not come out alone, rather it goes along with follicular fluid that is "poured out". The follicular fluid and oocyte leaving the ovary resembles milk leaving a breast [see image].[31] Thus the swelling of the ovary before emitting its fluid is also like the swelling of a breast before emitting milk.

That both the male and female contributions are needed for pregnancy to occur is not a new idea to the Bible. That a baby cannot be formed without the male "seed" is well understood, as per the story of Onan in Genesis 38:8. But what of the female "seed"? There is one passage in the Hebrew Bible that hints at the fact that the female seed is required: Leviticus 12:2, which starts by saying "if a woman yields seed..." The Hebrew is tazriya, which is the hiph'il of a root for producing seed, thus the implication is that a female herself can produce seed. So while it is understood in the Bible that the male contribution is necessary, it is also understood that so too is the female contribution (if the female does not deposit seed, she is barren, and thus pregnancy cannot occur).

The fact that the Bible refers to barren women speaks rather loudly on the belief that the female too must contribute something. In the New Testament this is fully realized in Hebrews 11:11, which talks about how Sarah was at one point barren, but at a later time could have a child. What made the difference between being barren and being able to produce a child? The key words are katabolh spermatoV (katabole spermatos), which literally mean that Sarah deposited seed (and this has troubled some commentators and translators).[32] However, to prove that this is not a modern understanding, note that all the way back in the 10th century, Theophylactus, in his Expositio in Epistulam ad Hebraeos, on Hebrews 11:11, noted that the verse can be understood as being in favor of the position that both the male and female contribute seed:
    dunamin eiV katabolhn spermatos elaben - toutesti enedunamwqh eiV to upodezasqai kai krathsai to katablhqen eiV authn spema tou Abraam. H epeidh fasin oi tauta akribwsmenoi kai thn gunaika oion ti sperma af eauthV suneisagein mhpote outwV eklhpteon to eiV katabolhn spermatoV abti tou eiV katabalein kai authn sperma

    "She received strenght for a seminal emission" - That is, she obtained strength to receive and retain Abraham's seed that was emitted into her. Or, because those who have studied these matters in detail say that a woman, too, in a sense, produces seed of her own, perhaps the words "for a seminal emission" should be taken to mean this: "so that she herself too could emit semen".
So, while the "milk" has already been correlated to both the of male and female contributions, the question arises nonetheless: if there is only one substance from which a child is made, what is it? Obviously, in light of the fact that the Bible acknowledges the necessity of both male and female contributions, the "one" substance is a substance that is the combination of male and female contributions - contributions that are both poured out similar to the way milk is poured out.

After the "milk" (combination of male and female contributions) is "poured out" it says this stubstance was pulled together. Most translations have "curdled". The Hebrew reads taqpee'eni, which is from the the qof-feh-aleph (QFA) root, which means to solidify, to coagulate, and even to freeze. "Solidify" is already accurate, as David Bruce Taylor noted that this implies that Job knew "that the nearer the fetus came to birth, the 'firmer' it became, particularly as regards the bone structure"[33], id est: a loose reference to ossification.

However note that Gesenius has one of the meanings of QFA root be "to draw oneself together." The word taqpee'eni is from the infinitive l'haqpee, which is the hiph'il of the root, which is transitive (hiph'il is an agentive verb that is causative, literally meaning "to cause to become," or "to cause to do"). Thus we can understand this as meaning that the person performing the action (God) does not cause himself to come together, but rather is drawing something else together or causing something else to draw itself together.[34] Hence this could be seen as the drawing together of the "milk" (which was correlated above with both semen and the contribution of the female that comes out during ovulation, thus drawing together the two contributions).

Now the comparison is to cheese. Well, when cheese is made, it is not made from all the milk, rather there is run-off (usually in the form of whey). So too, the gamete is formed not from the entire male contribution (semen) or the entire female contribution (which includes the follicular fluid). When making cheese, from a select part of the contributed "milk" a curd is made. The curd is spherical, and so too is the zygote. Thus we see that the description in Job (which leaves out any mention of menstrual blood, which is found in Aristotelian cheese analogies) is not at all inaccurate; rather it is actually quite factual in light of this correlation.

Now we can move on to Job 10:11, which states that God clothed Job in skin and flesh (id est, soft tissue) and interwove bones and gidim (often translated "sinews," but it could mean many things). It is interesting that the text mentions soft tissue first, and then bones, as that is the correct order (wholly unlike the Qur'anic account, which has soft tissue form after bones). Furthermore, the word "interweave" that I used is often translated "knit" or even "fenced" in other translations; it is from the samekh-kaf-kaf (SKK) root, which can mean "cover," but, as both Gesenius and Rueven Alqalay's Milon Ivri-Angli Shalem note, can also mean "interweave". So the verse can be seen as stating that soft tissue was formed, and then bones were interwoven in. Also, the same verb (SKK) is employed in Psalms 139:13, thus we could understand that is the embryo being interwoven with the womb the way the early embryo is imbedded in the uterus, or the way it is later attached to it with an umbilical cord that weaves into the uterus.

While the exegesis applied here to the book of Job is our own, note that other theologians have come to similar conclusions. While there are differences, the rough order reflects that which was laid out by Robert Gordis:
    The embryo is fashioned out of clay, the semen being poured out like milk, solidifying like cheese, being clothed in skin and flesh, and finally being knitted together with bones and sinews.[35]
We instead have the embryo being fashioned as if with clay, not literally out of clay, but we agree that this is a general description of an overall process that is laid out in the verses that followed. Note that Gordis agrees with the SKK root being a reference to knitting or interweaving, and even greater agreement can be found with the theologian C.F. Burney:
    Now there are two O.T. passages in which the verb [SKK] is applied to the weaving of the embryonic body in the womb, the thought being of a mysterious interlacing (as it were) of bones, sinews, and veins, as appears from the passage Job X II. [...] We notice that Job X I0 - the verse which immediately precedes the passage which we have discussed as referring to emrbyonic growth runs,
    Has thou not poured me out like milk and curdled me like cheese?
    Here, without a doubt, the figure is that of (a) procreation, and (b) conception[.]
Further agreement with our interpretation of the milk-cheese analogy can be found in writings from centuries ago, as even St. Thomas wrote that verse 10 refers to seminis resolutio (resolution of the seed) and compactio massae corporeae in utero mulieris (joining together of the corporeal masses in the woman's uterus), respectively[37].

Thus in the end we see that a strikingly accurate correlation can be made between Job's description and modern science. This, we hope, will serve as a lesson for how much one can read into a text when playing by the rules which are employed by those who champion the scientific-hermeneutic approach to Qur'anic embryology. These exercises do not demonstrate a divine origin for the Qur'an. On the contrary, they only demonstrate the ability of creative individuals to come up with post-hoc interpretations that suddenly make text harmonious with modern science. This can be done with almost any religious text.

  1. One of the most popular examples is found on the Islamic-Awareness site (maintained by Dr. Muhammad Saifullaah, a research associate at Cambridge University), which can be seen here: http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Science/scientists.html

  2. Daniel Golden, "Strange Bedfellows: Western Scholars Play Key Role in Touting 'Science' of the Quran," The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, January 23rd, 2002, pp. A1 & A24.

  3. Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Harvard, 1980), p. 163.

  4. Golden, opere citato, p. A1.

  5. Golden, opere citato, p. A24.

  6. Imran Aijaz, Embryology In The Qur'an? A General Response, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, December 25, 2001.

  7. The aforementioned Dr. Saifullaah wrote that Moore "said in a programme organized by [the] MSA in Canada that he is not [a Muslim] and he gave his own reasons for it." This can be found in M.S.M. Saifullah, Embryology In The Qur'an? A General Response, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, December 26, 2001.

  8. Golden, opere citato, p. A24.

  9. Keith L. Moore, TVN Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th edition, (WB Saunders, 1998), p. 10.

  10. Basim Musallam, "The Human Embryo in Arabic Scientific and Religious Thought," in G.R. Dunstan, The Human Embryo: Aristotle and the Arabic and European Traditions, (University of Exeter, 1990), pp. 39-40.

  11. See for example, Moore, opere citato, pp. 5 & 545; under the proposed Qur'anic system, development would be in the third stage by day 28, but in Moore's real text book development is already in stage 13, hinting rather strongly at the fact that even he is not interested in this proposed system of classification based on the Qur'anic terminology.

  12. Moore, opere citato, p. 9.

  13. More sensible Muslims have voiced nearly identical objections. Consider Behnam Sadeghi's article, Problems with Dawa Methods, posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, November 22, 1999, where he writes:
    It is quite telling that in EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE these scientific theories were read into the Qur'an only AFTER they were proposed in modern times! Now, if the pseudo-scientific claims about the Qur'an are valid, does it not follow that the Qur'an is in these passages so vague that for centuries not even a single person could guess what it was really saying? And if these passages do have this character of vagueness and ambiguity, how on earth can you claim that they talk about scientific concepts, which require precise and unambiguous language? A passage can be called scientific only if it is clearly understood at the very outset to entail certain experiential predictions. None of the alleged "scientific" verses in the Qur'an meet this criterion.

  14. Imran Aijaz, Embryology In The Qur'an? A General Response, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, December 31, 2001.

  15. Basim Musallam, opere citato, p. 38.

  16. Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium, Book II, 739b20-739b30, as per Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle, (Princeton, 1985), Vol 1, p. 1148.

  17. George William Brown, The Human Body in the Upanishads, (Christian Mission Press, 1921), p. 185-186.

  18. M.S.M Saifullah, Does the Quran contain statements which agree with Modern Science which would lead to the conlusion that a greater power is the source of the Quran?, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, May 2, 2003.

  19. Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, the Qur'an and Science, translated from the French by Alastair D. Pannell and M. Bucaille, (Islamic Book Service, 1997), p. 201.

  20. Imran Aijaz, Embryology In The Qur'an? A General Response, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, December 25, 2001.

  21. Galen, De Semine, Book I, 9, 1-4, as per Phillip de Lacy (ed./trans.), Galen: On Semen, Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, V,3,1, (Akademie Verlag, 1992), p. 93.

  22. Note that Rashad Khalifa translated alaqa as "hanging (embryo)," id est "something that hangs". Also, the ayn-lam-qaf root is employed numerous times in Arabic translations of the Bible in the sense of "hang"; exempli gratia: Arabic translations of Galatians 3:13, "cursed is every man who is hung on a tree" becomes mal'oon kullu man ulliqa ala khashabatin.

  23. Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium, Book II, 740a28-740a35, as per Barnes, opere citato, p. 1149.

  24. See Moore, opere citato, p. 351, fig. 14-2, which shows this connection already being complete at 26 days, and on the same page it mentions that the blood vessels will later lose connection with the heart. Also, in comparing Aristotle's description with the Qur'anic term alaqa, take note of the picture proponents of this polemic try to correlate the term with, and ask yourself if the Qur'an is more descriptive or less descriptive than Aristotle with regard to this point in the development of the fetus.

  25. Joseph Needham, "A History of Emrbyology," (Abelard-Schuman, 1959), pp. 61-62, emphasis ours. Compare this with the Greek text of M. Wellman, Die Fragmente der sikelischen Ärzte Akron, Philistion und des Diokles von Karystos, (Weidmann, 1901), p. 199, which reads:
      H de prwth diamorfwsiV twn embruwn diashmainei peri taV tessarakonta hmeraV ewV men gar q hmerwn oion grammai tineV aimatwdeiV upoferontai peri de taV oktwkaideka qromboi sarkwdeiV kai inwdh tina diashmainetai kai sfugmoV en autoiV eurisketai o thV kardiaV. peri de taV treiV enneadaV wV fhsin o DioklhV en umeni muxwdei ginetai fanerwV amudroV o turoV thV racewV kai o thV kefalhV.

    . The Greek text can also be found in Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, VI 2,2, Vol. 4, p. 105. The rough translation is as follows:
      The first configuration of [the] embryo becomes apparent after about forty days. Until the ninth day only lines tinged with blood can be seen under the surface; about the eighteenth day, fleshy clots and certain fibrose shapes can be seen, and one can detect the beating of the heart. About three periods of nine days [i.e. 27 days], as Diocles says, the rough impression of the spine and head becomes apparent in the tissue.

  26. Galen too had bones form first, and then be covered with flesh. See Galen, De Semine, Book I, 10, 13-16, as per de Lacy, opere citato, pp. 101-103, which reads as follows:
      Thus it caused flesh to grow on and around all the bones, and at the same time, sucking the fattest part out of them, it made them earthy and brittle and completely without fat; and causing the viscous matter that it drew from them in each case to grow out, it made at the ends of the bones ligaments that bind them to each other, and along their entire length it placed around them on all sides thin membranes, called periosteal, on which it caused flesh to grow. [...] But where (nature) caused flesh to grow on the bones themselves before it covered them with membranes, all such bones were less brittle.

  27. Basim Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam, (Cambridge, 1983), p. 54.

  28. Ibide.

  29. M.S.M Saifullah, Does the Quran contain statements which agree with Modern Science which would lead to the conlusion that a greater power is the source of the Quran?, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, April 17, 2003.

  30. Moore, opere citato, p. 29.

  31. While we have provided an image depicting this, one can also see fig. 2-11 in ibide.

  32. A wonderful in depth analysis of the allusion to the female contribution in Hebrews 11:11 can be found in "Sarah's Seminal Emission: Hebrews 11:11 in the Light of Ancient Embryology," in Pieter Willem van der Horst, Hellenism-Judaism-Christianity, (Kok Phavos, 1994), pp. 203-223.

  33. David Bruce Taylor, Job: A Rational Exposition, (Merlin Books, 1990), p. 94.

  34. Further evidence of it meaning 'join together' or 'pull together' can be found later in this article when the exegesis of St. Thomas is mentioned. However note that in the Latin translation of Exodus 15:8 in the Vulgata, the relevant verb is translated as congregate (to gather together). Also, see Shlomoh Mandelqern, Qonqordantsiyah L'TaNaKh, (Shulsinger Bros., 1955), Vol. II, p. 1035, which translates the verb as contrahere (to draw or bring together; to collect; assemble) and colligere (to gather or collect together into a whole or point; to collect; assemble; draw or bring together).

  35. Robert Gordis, The Book of Job, (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1978), p. 522.

  36. C.F. Burney, "Christ as the APXH of Creation," Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 27, 1926, p. 166.

  37. See E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job, translated from the French by Harold Knight, (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1967), p. 150.

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