Statements referring to human reproduction and development are scattered
throughout the Qur'an. 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.
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.
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.
"He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another,
in three veils of darkness."
This statement is from Sura
39:6. 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.D., Galen described the placenta and fetal membranes in his
book "On The Formation of the Foetus." Consequently, doctors in the 7th
century A.D. likely knew that the human embryo developed in the uterus. 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. 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Streeter (1941) developed the first system of staging which has now been
replaced by a more accurate system proposed by O'Rahilly (1972).
"The three veils of darkness" may refer to:
(1) 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.
|Figure 1 from this Article is
Not Available Online.
See Similar Pictures of Fetus: 2 Months |
|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. 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").
"Then We made the drop into a leech-like structure."
This statement is from Sura 23:14. 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.
||Figure 2. Top,
a drawing of a leech or
Below, a drawing of a 24 day-old human embryo.
Note the leech-like appearance of the human embryo at this stage.
||Figure 3. Left,
a plasticine model of the human
embryo which has the appearance of chewed flesh.|
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.
"Then of that leech-like structure, We made a chewed lump."
This statement is also from Sura 23:14. 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.
"Then We made out of the chewed lump, bones, and clothed the bones in
This continuation of Sura 23:14 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 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 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.
"Then out of a piece of chewed flesh, partly formed and partly unformed."
This part of Sura 22:5 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.
"And We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term."
This next part of Sura 22:5 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
Embryology affords us new understanding. Undoubtedly there are other verses in
the Qur'an related to human development that will be understood in the future as
our knowledge increases.
(*) Even though the translations of the verses of
the Qur'an in the above paper were provided by Sheik Abdul Majid Zendani,
the links to the translations in this page are from Yusuf Ali Qur'an