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, 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 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," 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." 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." 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!"
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. Even without such testimony, the above-mentioned Wall Street Journal article gave us a reason to believe that Moore had not converted to Islam:
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:
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
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. One intriguing objection to the scientific-hermeneutic approach that comes from the aforementioned Muslim Imran Aijaz touches on its being circular:
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.
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:
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:
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." 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.
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:
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, 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:
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:
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.
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):
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:
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.
A Scientific-Hermeneutic Approach to Job?
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). 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:
"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".
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", 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. 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:
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[.]
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.