A Scientist's Interpretation of References to Embryology in the Qur'an

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

"A Scientist's Interpretation of References to Embryology in the Qur'an" is a document by Keith Moore that purports to show that the Qur'an contains scientific foreknowledge when it "predicted" several elements of embryology.

PZ Myers has no respect for Qur'anic understanding of embryology which appears to start with a sperm merging with a blood clot.[1]

The following is a side-by-side rebuttal.


"A Scientist's Interpretation of References to Embryology in the Qur'an", Keith MooreWikipedia:[2] RationalWiki:

"Statements referring to human reproduction and development are scattered throughout the Qur'an. Religious texts do seem to love talking about makin' babies and what to do with them when they pop out. Since the Qur'an is superior to these innumerable heathen books, we're sure that it has a detailed, unambiguous, and complete description of inception, the stages of pregnancy, and birth, preferably all in one chronological section. Right?

It is only recently that the scientific meaning of some of these verses has been appreciated fully. The long delay in interpreting these verses correctly resulted mainly from inaccurate translations and commentaries and from a lack of awareness of scientific knowledge. Indeed, the Quran appears only to have scientific foreknowledge after a scientific discovery has been made.

Interest in explanations of the verses of the Qur'an is not new. People used to ask the prophet Muhammad all sorts of questions about the meaning of verses referring to human reproduction. The Apostle's answers form the basis of the Hadith literature. Yes, the Hadiths exist.

The translations of the verses from the Qur'an which are interpreted in this paper were provided by Sheik Abdul Majid Zendani, a Professor of Islamic Studies in King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, Prof. Zendani's translation is unavailable online. Regardless, Rationalwiki prefers the Pickthall translation, because it appears to be most accurate and not made to fit scientific foreknowledge claims.

Though not mentioned by Moore, many Muslim apologists argue that the Qur'an accurately states that both male and female contribute genetic material to the new zygote, quoting Qur'an 53:45-46 and 76:2, which separately mention the "thickened fluid" and the creation of "the male and the female". First, neither of the verses cited explicitly argues that both the male and female provide their traits to their offspring. Instead, the apologetic argument arises here because the cited verses are sometimes translated in such a way that they imply that some "mixing" has gone on here. Even if we accept these translations, it's impossible to say what is being "mixed" -- semen and vaginal fluid, semen and menstrual discharge, semen and semen, male and female genetic material, or any of a number of possibilities.[note 1] As such, these verses are vague to the point of uselessness.

Second, Qur'an 77:20-22 strongly implies that "base fluid", or semen, develops alone in "a safe abode", or the uterus, and does not mention any mixing whatsoever. This lends Qur'anic support to the incorrect contemporary Greek theories that semen alone grow(s) into a fetus in the uterus.

Third, and most damning, 2:223 states that women are "tilth (to cultivate)". Tilth provides no genetic material to the seed, merely harboring it while it grows. This lends Qur'anic support to the incorrect contemporary Greek theories that semen alone grow(s) into a fetus in the uterus.

[Verse 39:6 omitted; see here.] We do not know when it was realized that human beings underwent development in the uterus (womb), but the first known illustration of a fetus in the uterus was drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. In the 2nd century A.C.E., Galen described the placenta and fetal membranes in his book "On The Formation of the Foetus." Consequently, doctors in the 7th century A.C.E. likely knew that the human embryo developed in the uterus. As mentioned by Moore, the knowledge that the embryo develops in-utero was known well before the writing of the Qur'an.[3][4][5] Thus, this "foreknowledge" is merely "knowledge".

It is unlikely that they knew that it developed in stages, even though Aristotle had described the stages of development of the chick embryo in the 4th century B.C.E. The realization that the human embryo develops in stages was not discussed and illustrated until the 15th century. After the microscope was discovered in the 17th century by Leeuwenhoek descriptions were made of the early stages of the chick embryo. The staging of human embryos was not described until the 20th century. Streeter (1941) developed the first system of staging which has now been replaced by a more accurate system proposed by O'Rahilly (1972). First, as discounted by Moore, humans did investigate the stages of embryology.[4][5]

Second, the knowledge that the fetus undergoes different stages of development should be readily understood from the changes that pregnant women undergo, such as lack of menstruation, changes in abdomen size, etc and known at the time.

Third, the Qur'an does a very poor job of explaining the stages of pregnancy. The Qur'an includes no timeline for any of its stages, does not present the stages that it mentions in chronological order, does not describe all of the stages, and describes most of the stages either through analogy or through vague imagery. Why?

"The three veils of darkness" [from Qur'an 39:6] may refer to: (l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane (Fig. 1). Although there are other interpretations of this statement, the one presented here seems the most logical from an embryological point of view. First, the "veils" chosen are entirely arbitrary. Why not choose the three layers of the skin[6] or the three layers of the uterus[7] or the three sides of the abdominal wall[8] or any three of the six main layers of the abdominal wall?[8] If the Qur'an was truly a scientific source of knowledge, it would not merely reference the "three veils", which is vague and can be interpreted in many ways, but describe them and detail their function. Instead, it is clear that these three layers were arbitrarily chosen because it appeared to support the Qur'an's "prophecy".

Second, the amniochorionic membrane cannot exactly be said to be "a layer of darkness", when the specific part of the membrane that surrounds the baby, or the amnion, is transparent.[9] Even if we discount the transparency point, consider also that the amniochorionic membrane is only formed after the second week of pregnancy in humans[10], which means that the first two weeks of the "creat[ion] ... in the wombs of your mothers ... in a threefold gloom" are actually occuring in a twofold gloom.

Third, in the after-birth, the amniotic sac is ejected, meaning Muhammad could have been aware of its existence. Adding in the womb and the belly itself, it is not ridiculous to think that the "three veils" Moore mentioned were all contemporary knowledge to anyone with a basic understanding of embryology. This is consistent with the earlier observation that for the first two weeks it would have been a two-fold gloom, since the arabs at the time would not see the first two weeks, and might assume that the sac was present for the entire pregnancy. Lastly, since Moore is a doctor, he should have known that the amniotic sac is ejected in the after-birth. Why didn't he mention it? This seems to make it more likely he is arguing in bad faith.

Figure 1. Drawing of a sagittal section of a female's abdomen and pelvis showing a fetus in utero. The "veils of darkness" are: (1) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall, and (3) the amniochorionic membrane.
Figure 1. Drawing of a sagittal section of a female's abdomen and pelvis showing a fetus in utero. The "veils of darkness" are: (1) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall, and (3) the amniochorionic membrane.

"Then We placed him as a drop in a place of rest." This statement is from Sura 23:13 [see here]. The drop or nutfah has been interpreted as the sperm or spermatozoon, but a more meaningful interpretation would be the zygote which divides to form a blastocyst which is implanted in the uterus ("a place of rest"). This interpretation is supported by another verse in the Qur'an which states that "a human being is created from a mixed drop." The zygote forms by the union of a mixture of the sperm and the ovum ("The mixed drop"). Interpreting a verse as vague as "Then we placed him as a drop in a place of rest" as evidence that Muhammad had knowledge of how zygotes divide to form blastocyst is probably one of the most ridiculous things in here. Also, saying that the "mixed drop" provides evidence of knowledge of female reproductive cells is still dumb. "Mixed" implies the mixing of fluids. The egg is not a fluid.

"Then We made the drop into a leech-like structure." This statement is from Sura 23:14 [see here]. The word "alaqah" refers to a leech or bloodsucker. This is an appropriate description of the human embryo from days 7-24 when it clings to the endometrium of the uterus, in the same way that a leech clings to the skin. Just as the leech derives blood from the host, the human embryo derives blood from the decidua or pregnant endometrium. It is remarkable how much the embryo of 23-24 days resembles a leech (Fig. 2). As there were no microscopes or lenses available in the 7th century, doctors would not have known that the human embryo had this leech-like appearance. In the early part of the fourth week, the embryo is just visible to the unaided eye because it is smaller than a kernel of wheat. Leeches and embryos have a few differences.

First, leeches have many characteristics other than shape, such as size, behaviour, shape, color, appearance, and so on. Why use a metaphor relating embryos to leeches when listeners cannot be expected to know what characteristic the analogy describes? It is ridiculous to choose one characteristic, shape, which may have a very limited degree find of similarity with an embryo, particularly because the early embryo passes through a wide range of shapes. Apologists also conveniently omit the yolk sac, since it makes it look much less "leech-like"

Second, leeches simply sucks blood from its host,[11] while the embryo circulates and exchanges blood and waste products with its mother "host".[12]

Third, And most importantly of all, the references to the leech-like nature of the embryo are clearly referencing it's clinging nature. Indeed, a simple search through the various translations of the Quran reveal the vast majority reference this as a "clinging lump" or some variation.[13] However, Moore has mauled the translation, forcing it into explicitly describing the structure as leech-like, while it is obvious the leech analogy is referencing the clinging or sucking nature of the embryo. In fact, many translations seem to think the lump was meant to be a blood clot [14] No doubt if the fetus at this stage had any resemblance to a blood clot Keith Moore would talking about that instead.

Figure 2. Top, a drawing of a leech or bloodsucker. Below, a drawing of a 24 day-old human embryo. Note the leech-like appearance of the human embryo at this stage.
Figure 2. Top, a drawing of a leech or bloodsucker. Below, a drawing of a 24 day-old human embryo. Note the leech-like appearance of the human embryo at this stage.
Human embryo at approx. 18 to 21 days
Human embryo at approx. 18 to 21 days. Source

"Then of that leech-like structure, We made a chewed lump." This statement is also from Sura 23:14 [see here]. The Arabic word "mudghah" means "chewed substance or chewed lump." Toward the end of the fourth week, the human embryo looks somewhat like a chewed lump of flesh (Fig. 3). The chewed appearance results from the somites which resemble teeth marks. The somites represent the beginnings or primordia of the vertebrae. Interesting that he translates "mudghah" as "chewed lump". Checking the Quran translation compiler site Islamawakened.com[15], only 5 out of the 35 translations of 23:14 reference the lump as "chewed". Most translations just call it a lump, including the ever-reliable Pickthall. Now think, what sort of word could be translated as both "lump" and "chewed substance"? That's right, "mudghah" is often used to refer to gum or quid. The "chewed" aspect doesn't mean there's a bite taken out of it, it means it kinda looks like a lump of chewed gum. That Texan sharpshooter really keeps finding miracles, huh? Also note that the fetus at this stage looks nothing like a piece of chewed gum, meaning this is actually an example of a Quranic scientific error.

Figure 3. Left, a plasticine model of the human embryo which has the appearance of chewed flesh. Right, a drawing of a 28 day-old human embryo showing several bead-like somites which resemble the teeth marks in the model shown to the left.
Figure 3. Left, a plasticine model of the human embryo which has the appearance of chewed flesh. Right, a drawing of a 28 day-old human embryo showing several bead-like somites which resemble the teeth marks in the model shown to the left.
Human embryo at approx. 27 to 30 days
Human embryo at approx. 27 to 30 days. Source

"Then out of a piece of chewed flesh, partly formed and partly unformed." This part of Sura 22:5 [see here] seems to indicate that the embryo is composed of both differentiated and undifferentiated tissues. For example, when the cartilage bones are differentiated, the embryonic connective tissue or mesenchyme around them is undifferentiated. It later differentiates into the muscles and ligaments attached to the bones. First, it's hard to argue that "formed and unformed" implies "differentiated and undifferentiated" when it's just as possible that the verse is poetically referring to the fact that, during pregnancy, a human baby is not yet fully formed, but is partially formed. There's no reason to prefer one interpretation over the other, making the verse vague to begin with.
Second, the Qur'an states that the "chewed lump" stage, in which cell differentiation occurs, begins after the "leech" stage (23-24 days) and ends before the "fetus" (after 36 dats) stage. This is odd, because differentiation begins at 4 days[16][17] and continues into the fetus stage.[18][19] If we interpret this verse as involving cell differentiation, then the Qur'an is correct that differentiation occurs in the chewed lump stage; however, it seems disingenuous to mention differentiation for only part of the times at which it is present.

"Then We made out of the chewed lump, bones, and clothed the bones in flesh." This continuation of Sura 23:14 [see here] indicates that out of the chewed lump stage, bones and muscles form. This is in accordance with embryological development. First the bones form as cartilage models and then the muscles (flesh) develop around them from the somatic mesoderm.

"Then We developed out of it another creature." This next part of Sura 23:14 [see here] implies that the bones and muscles result in the formation of another creature. This may refer to the human-like embryo that forms by the end of the eighth week. At this stage it has distinctive human characteristics and possesses the primordia of all the internal and external organs and parts. After the eighth week, the human embryo is called a fetus. This may be the new creature to which the verse refers.

"And He gave you hearing and sight and feeling and understanding." This part of Sura 32:9 [see here] indicates that the special senses of hearing, seeing, and feeling develop in this order, which is true. The primordia of the internal ears appear before the beginning of the eyes, and the brain (the site of understanding) differentiates last. This verse does not sufficiently indicate that the senses develop in this order. The statement, "I gave you bread, water, and fish" does not clearly imply that bread came first, then water, then fish; instead it merely indicates that all were given. If the Qur'an wished to make clear that it gave hearing, then sight, then understanding, then it could simply have used the word "then" between each, as was just done, or any number of other semantic methods of indicating order. Instead, the Qur'an appears to be boasting about how much stuff Allah has apparently given to humans, and how little thanks poor Allah gets for it.

"And We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term.["] This next part of Sura 22:5 [see here] seems to imply that God determines which embryos will remain in the uterus until full term. It is well known that many embryos abort during the first month of development, and that only about 30% of zygotes that form, develop into fetuses that survive until birth. This verse has also been interpreted to mean that God determines whether the embryo will develop into a boy or girl. The interpretation of the verses in the Qur'an referring to human development would not have been possible in the 7th century A.D., or even a hundred years ago. We can interpret them now because the science of modern [e]mbryology affords us new understanding. First, the knowledge that pregnancy goes on for a finite time probably existed at the time of the writing of the Qur'an. This statement appears to be the clearest interpretation of this verse of the Qur'an, which mentions only "rest[ing] in the womb" for "an appointed term".
Second, the Qur'anic verse in no way mentions or implies anything about zygotes, fetuses, miscarriage, or the gender of the embryo. It's impossible to read "for an appointed term" as involving any of the above. Clearly, these concepts are being read into the Qur'an.

Undoubtedly there are other verses in the Qur'an related to human development that will be understood in the future as our knowledge increases." Undoubtedly.

Relevant verses: Relevant commentary:

^ "Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth, and send (good deeds) before you for yomr souls, and fear Allah, and know that ye will (one day) meet Hiim. Give glad tidings to believers, (O Muhammad)." (Qur'an 2:223). Temporarily ignoring the blatant misogyny, this verse clearly indicates that females do not provide genetic material. Or should we arbitrarily disregard this analogy while accepting the others?

^1, 2 "O mankind! if ye are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then lo! We have created you from dust, then from a drop of seed, then from a clot, then from a little lump of flesh shapely and shapeless, that We may make (it) clear for you. And We cause what We will to remain in the wombs for an appointed time, and afterward We bring you forth as infants, then (give you growth) that ye attain your full strength. And among you there is he who dieth (young), and among you there is he who is brought back to the most abject time of life, so that, after knowledge, he knoweth naught. And thou (Muhammad) seest the earth barren, but when We send down water thereon, it doth thrill and swell and put forth every lovely kind (of growth)," (Qur'an 22:5).

^1, 2, 3, 4, 5 "Verily We created man from a product of wet earth; Then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging; Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators! Then lo! after that ye surely die. Then lo! on the Day of Resurrection ye are raised (again)." (Qur'an 23:12-16).

^ "Who made all things good which He created, and He began the creation of man from clay; then He made his seed from a draught of despised fluid; then He fashioned him and breathed into him of His Spirit; and appointed for you hearing and sight and hearts. Small thanks give ye!" (Qur'an 32:7-9). It's not clear that this verse is even talking about pregnancy, given that it mentions "the creation of man from clay", which references Allah's creation of the first, rather than the insemination of every human. This is fit by the mention of Allah "breath[ing] into him of His Spirit", which again references Allah's initial creation of man.

^1, 2 "He hath created the heavens and the earth with truth. He maketh night to succeed day, and He maketh day to succeed night, and He constraineth the sun and the moon to give service, each running on for an appointed term. Is not He the Mighty, the Forgiver? He created you from one being, then from that (being) He made its mate; and He hath provided for you of cattle eight kinds. He created you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, in a threefold gloom. Such is Allah, your Lord. His is the Sovereignty. There is no Allah save Him. How then are ye turned away?" (Qur'an 39:5-6). Clearly this verse is discussing the details of pregnancy, rather than listing all the stuff Allah has made (which happens to include babies).

"He it is Who created you from dust, then from a drop (of seed) then from a clot, then bringeth you forth as a child, then (ordaineth) that ye attain full strength and afterward that ye become old men - though some among you die before - and that ye reach an appointed term, that haply ye may understand.", (Qur'an 40:67). This verse contradicts other Qur'anic accounts of embryology. Qur'an 40:67 claims that humans go directly from the "leech/clot/clinging thing/hanging thing" stage to becoming a fully-grown child. Qur'an 40:67 thus skips over the "formation of bone" stage, the "end of cell differentiation stage", and the "fetal stage". This either makes Qur'anic embryology not-foreknowledge ("first, semen; second, baby; third, human" is about as vagbasicue as it gets) or contradictory.

^ "And that He createth the two spouses, the male and the female, From a drop (of seed) when it is poured forth," (Qur'an 53:45). This verse seems to just say that God created both men and women out of a drop of sperm. It doesn't say whether female genetic material contributes to the fetus. In fact, by mentioning a drop of sperm and nothing else it seems to imply the opposite-- that only the man contributes.

^ "Lo! We create man from a drop of thickened fluid to test him; so We make him hearing, knowing," (Qur'an 76:2). First,' this verse imlplies that semen mixed with something is the basis for a zygote; however, we are never told what.
Second, this verse isn't necessarily referring to pregnancy. The abilities given to man come from Creation.

^ "Did We not create you from a base fluid Which We laid up in a safe abode For a known term?" (Qur'an 77:20-22). This verse supports the semen-only theory of zygote formation.


Summary of claim: The Qur'an accurately describes various stages of pre-birth human development, which would have been unknowable to contemporary science.
Does this statement meet all criteria necessary for Qur'anic scientific foreknowledge?

  1. Is it correct? Mostly. Most of these claims about human development are true.
  2. Is it in the Qur'an? No. Only if one is looking for these meanings can one find them.
  3. Is it unambiguous? No. The Qur'an only vaguely references various "stages".
  4. Was it outside of contemporary knowledge? No. Contemporary Greek and Indian accounts had similar ideas of human development.
  5. Was it outside of contemporary technology? Yes and no. Some of these stages would have required microscopes; some would not.

Thus, this statement is not an example of Qur'anic scientific foreknowledge.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Other sources:
  • Other responses:


  1. Seeing as all but the last of these ideas were present in contemporary Greek and Jewish societies, and Arabic societies had frequent contact with the Greeks and Jews, it's not hard to believe that Muhammad may have come into contact with these ideas.