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Embryology and Quranic science

Engr. Mohammad Shahidul Alam | December 07, 2020 00:00:00

Today, one may be a highly educated citizen of a wealthy family living in modern society with the internet at one's fingertip. However, in order to begin to understand the extraordinary contents in the holy Quran, one go hundreds of years back to a time (e.g., around 610-632 CE) and the place where "science" barely existed. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad's birthplace was in one of the most backward places of the world at that time. Much scientific information we take for granted these days simply did not exist (or was incorrect) in earlier times and places. So readjust your mindset to a different time and place so that you can more fully appreciate the following :



While today people have a good understanding of reproduction, this has not always been the case. For example, do you know the theory of "spontaneous generation" that held sway for a time? The idea was that things like maggots would "spontaneously" appear on meat. Pasteur conclusively demonstrated that the theory was false by running controlled experiments during the 19th century CE.

How about the theory of "preformationism?" The general idea was that, for example, a human being was fully preformed as a "homunculus" i.e. a miniature human. Then this miniature human simply grew with time into an adult. The idea gained much strength under people like Nicolaas Hartsoeker in 1694 CE (before eventually being replaced by a competing idea of epigenesis' due to Ritter von Baer's discovery of the mammalian ovum (egg) in 1827 CE. and also due to the Hans Driesch experiments of the late 19th century CE. Sure a lot of this stuff sounds absurd, but the point is that things that are obvious to us now may not necessarily always have been. It helps understand that in order to more fully appreciate this section.

Here are some Quranic verses and commentaries that deal with human embryology.


Quranic verse:

Then He made [ man's ] offspring out of the essence of a humble fluid. (the Arabic word is "Sulalah"). Quran, 32:8

Interestingly, the Arabic word "sulalah" used in this verse has multiple meanings:

• A long piece, a long fish, something drawn out or flowing

• An extraction of something from its group

• An essential part

If one carefully examines sperm they do have an uncanny resemblance to tiny, long, swimming fish! Furthermore, the sperm is only one part (the essential part) of the male fluid (i.e. semen).

Semen has many parts, each of which serves different functions. For example, the spermatozoa (the sperm), fructose (energy for the sperm), prostaglandin (to suppress female immune response against the foreign sperm), mucus (to increase sperm mobility), and so on.


Quranic verse:

have created man out of a drop of sperm intermingled (See the Arabic words "nutfa amshaj" below) Quran 76:2

The Arabic "nutfa" refers to a fluid drop, and the Arabic word "amshaj" refers to mingling. The implication is that the entity results from both the male and the female. As the mammalian egg was only discovered in 1827, this concept of mingling (of the male and female) was much ahead of its time.


Quranic verse:

Then we transformed that drop (nutfa) into a clinging thing Quran 23:14 (See the Arabic words "nutfa" and "alaqa" below)

Wasn't he a mere spewed drop of sperm, then a clinging thing … Quran 75:37-38

The important Arabic word here is "alaqa" which has multiple meanings, which are

• Something that clings e.g. a clinging entity

• a "leech-like" thing

• a blood clot

Interestingly, the fertilized egg (i.e. zygote) divides, moves down the fallopian tubes, and attaches itself to the uterine wall, i.e., clinging to it. Furthermore, it does have an uncanny resemblance to a leech! It can also appear to have the look of clotted blood in it. All this is indeed fascinating.

When the entity attaches (i.e. blastocyst implanting) itself to the uterine wall, it can actually be thought to "grow roots" (i.e. chorionic villi) to draw nourishment from the mother. As such, it does have some similarities with the metaphor of planting seeds in the soil. In this sense, Quran 2:223, which uses the analogy of fertile fields, also seems appropriate and insightful.


Quranic verse:

out of sperm, then out of a leech-like clot, then out of a chewed-like lump, partly formed and partly unformed (Quran 22: 5). (See the Arabic word "mudgha" below)

then out of that clinging thing (e.g., leech like alaqa), We formed a chewed up lump (i.e., mudgha) Quran 23:14

The important Arabic word is "mudgha" which can be translated as "chewed-like lump." This is, in fact, a rather good description! For example, the somites which will eventually become things like vertebrae ,do look like the teeth marks left on chewed gum. Interesting the succession of embryology stages is also correct. "Mudgha" does in fact follow the "alaqa" stage. Furthermore, the notion of "partly formed and partly unformed" also captures the essence of what exists at this point.

Now, there is a critically important fact that has not yet been mentioned. Many of these things are very small. It should be noted that microscopes were only invented by Leeuwenhoek in the 1600s and the quality of the first ones was rather poor. As such, for example spermatozoa were only identified around 1677 CE and human sperm soon after circa 1701 CE. Forget any suggestion as to their general appearance, their very existence could only be firmly established around the seventeenth century CE.


Quranic verses:

out of that chewed up lump (i.e. mudgha) We fashioned bones and clothed them in flesh Quran 23:14

We now know from science that the next stages are in fact the development of bones as well as muscles and flesh! Not only is the Quranic insight remarkable, but also the order of the words. Only very recently, have we learnt (at the microscopic level) that the cartilage ossifies followed by the muscular cells coming together and wrapping around the bones. This order is exactly what the Quranic verses indicate. Amazing.


Quranic verse:

Verily, it is We who have created man out of a drop of sperm intermingled, so that We might try him [in his later life]: and therefore We made him a being endowed with hearing and sight. Quran 76:2

Now one sees the development of hearing and sight. Again the Quran is prescient in its identification of these important markers at this stage. More surprising the Quranic order is correct. Science tells us that hearing development precedes sight development by about three to four weeks!

Eventually, the next stages proceed to produce something that can eventually survive outside the mother i.e., a baby!

"He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages one after another in three veils of darkness." Quran 39:6

There are in fact three "veils." Modern science finds the following:

• Anterior abdominal wall

• Uterine wall

• Amnio-chorionic membrane

These are all very surprising (perhaps even astonishing) verses for something revealed almost 1400 years ago!

Many surprising similarities between the Quran and modern embryology were actually noticed, and confirmed by distinguished, top western scientists with expertise in such fields as embryology/anatomy before being noticed by many Muslims-which actually is interesting. Furthermore, much of this knowledge has only been recently established.

The writer is deputy general manager (Human Resources), Padma Oil Company Limited

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