Lactantius, the author of the original article, also wrote a response dealing in detail with the historical and scientific evidence important in this discussion. The following article responds mainly to exegetical issues (i.e. interpretation in their proper contexts) of the respective biblical and quranic texts.

Second Response to Islamic Awareness

Embryology: The Bible Plagiarises Ancient Greek Literature

Embryology: The Bible Plagiarises Ancient Greek Literature is a Muslim polemic that contains several grave logical fallacies. I can understand how the author feels about the issue, but I hope this response will clarify some of these misunderstandings.

Let us first recall the reason for this discussion because our Muslim critic, Elias KarÓm, seems to somehow have lost sight of the real issue.

The dispute originated with the Muslim claim, that the Qur'an contains amazing scientific knowledge - most prominently in regard to embryology - that could not possibly have been known at Muhammad's time. This "scientific miracle" is presented by many Muslim missionaries as well as common believers as proof of the divine authorship of the Qur'an which then leads to the call for everyone to submit to Muhammad's message as the last revelation of God to all mankind.

The challenge set before us is to make a decision about religious truth with eternal consequences based on an argument from medical science. Conclusions on eternal realities, about ultimate and absolute truth are built on an issue of embryology, which is by its very nature a very transitory understanding of reality. This is problematic in itself, but since Muslims have presented the challenge to us in this way, we have responded to it in this framework of evaluating the scientific and historical claims that have been made, as well as the conclusions that have been drawn from them.

Let me try to identify for this discussion three elements in the Muslim claims about the Qur'an; two in regard to the history of embryology, and one refering to the nature of the Qur'an as it understands itself.

  1. The Qur'an gives a description of embryology which is scientifically accurate measured against current knowledge.
  2. This knowledge is supernatural because it was unavailable at the time of Muhammad.
  3. The Qur'an is God's direct word which existed with Him from eternity past on the heavenly tablet, not influenced by any human circumstances. It is eternally and unchangingly true and "up to date" and therefore cannot possibly contain obsolete historical human understanding of any issue.

The article "Embryology in the Qur'an" was and is one response to the Muslim challenge of this so-called scientific miracle of the Qur'an, and the evidence from Galen's writings that is presented there quite clearly demolishes the first two of the above claims, thus leaving nothing miraculous about the embryological statements in the Qur'an.

However, this might not have been so troublesome, were it not for the third of the above claims. When the claims about a miraculous mathematical structure in the Qur'an evaporated, it had no further negative effect on the integrity of the Qur'an. The Qur'an does not explicitly claim a mathematical miracle. If there is none, some Muslims might feel that this is a pity, but nothing essential is lost. The lack of a mathematical miracle does not pose a problem for the Qur'an itself.

The implications of the embryological evidence that has been uncoverd reach further and threaten the very foundations of Islam since finding in the Qur'an formulations of the classical Greek medical writers which are now out of date but were current understanding at the time of the composition of the Qur'an, is strong evidence that these statements are of human and not divine origin given the Muslim framework of understanding the Qur'an.

For nearly three years this uncomfortable evidence has remained unanswered, and continues to question the divine origin of the Qur'an. We have not seen any serious Muslim attempt to challenge the argument itself. Even though it goes down the wrong path, it is understandable when Elias KarÓm from the "Islamic Awareness" team now seeks to issue the battle cry "but your book has problems too" instead of addressing even a single piece of the presented evidence.

Somebody read the book "A History of Embryology" by Joseph Needham (refered to in the original Christian response article) and found that the author did not only make some comments about the Qur'an but also about a couple of Biblical passages. Some quite similar expressions relating to the formation of a child in the womb are found in Aristotle's writings and and in the books of Job and the Wisdom of Solomon. The Muslim critic states

... and as a result, the Bible should be rejected as a divinely revealed or inspired scripture -- according to the missionary's own testimony, according to his own standards of reasoning and evidence!

and he ends his presentation with the paragraph

Modifying the Missionary's own words we conclude:

However, the most convincing explanation, and the most worrying for those who maintain that the Bible is God's eternal Word, untampered with and free from any human interference, is that the Bible is using the enormously influential Greek philosopher Aristotle's teachings for the stages of foetal development, in which case not only is the Bible wrong, but it also plagiarises ancient Greek literature!

As I indicated above, I can understand the motivation and feelings for this statement, but there are several reasons why this is an erroneous conclusion. The situation is not parallel at all, and therefore one cannot draw the same conclusions from what looks like similar evidence.

If we really want to argue in parallel, then the issue is that the Muslim seeks to disprove something that was never claimed in the thesis he responds to. The whole article is really no defense at all of the earlier Muslim arguments regarding the Qur'an. And in regard to the Bible it is a straw man since Christians never made claims of an embryological miracle, nor do Christians have a theory of revelation or inspiration which is detached from the socio-historical environment in which the Biblical books were written. We expect all Biblical books to have more than just faint traces of the historical human environment in which the writers lived. Having found such traces confirms the Christian understanding of the nature of inspiration instead of refuting it.

Furthermore, the formulations in the article show clearly how uncomfortable the Muslim critic is with his own argument, since using it implicitly confirms the validity of the method used to disprove the Muslim claims about the Qur'an.

What shall we conclude from this Muslim response? Taking it at face value, it appears that the Muslim call to Islam has now changed from the former

"See this embryology miracle in the Qur'an,
recognize that it can only be from God and
surely your desire for obeying the manifest truth
will lead you to believe the message of Islam!"

to

"If you (Christians) can believe in a book which shows human influence,
why do you accuse us if we believe in a book
which exhibits evidences of human influence?"

Or, expressed differently, the argument appears to be,

"you are hypocrites TOO"

(i.e. and therefore we don't have to feel so bad about being hypocrites ourselves for believing in a book that doesn't measure up to its own claims.)

Is that all that is left to say for the Muslims regarding their former claims of a compelling miracle? Surely, that is a poor response, and hardly suitable to restore confidence in the scientific miracle or even the divine origin of the Qur'an.

Conclusion so far: None of the problems of the Qur'an are solved by claiming "the Bible has problems too." If it was supposed to be a defense of the Qur'an, the fallacy of attempting to divert the attention away from the Qur'an to the Bible is obvious.

The article has not even attempted to defend the claim that the embryological statements of the Qur'an are miraculous, nor has it given any support to the seriously damaged claim of divine origin of the Qur'an because of the Galenic formulations found in it.

What about the Bible?

Let us now turn our attention to the charges Mr. KarÓm stacks up against the the Bible. In order to better appreciate the explanation that is to follow, let me present a fake charge against the Qur'an, because the argument against the Bible is mistaken for the very same reason.

If a Christian were to claim that the Qur'an teaches in Sura 9:30 that "Ezra is the Son of Allah," (after all, the complete Qur'an is supposedly the word of God, and this statement is found in that verse), ... Muslims would be very annoyed by such a distorted interpretation, and rightly so! Whether this claim about the Jews is historically correct is discussed elsewhere. Here, we are only concerned with the observation that this statement is reported in the Qur'an merely as the opinion of a certain group of human beings, not as the teaching of God Himself. Even though the Qur'an is believed by Muslims to have been revealed in its entirety, every word of it, that does not imply that all the statements reported in it made by men, women, jinns, angels or Satan are therefore true.

The Muslim Bible critic, Elias KarÓm, is guilty of the same kind of irresponsible scripture twisting, because these words that he claims to be plagiarized from Aristotle are not spoken by God; they are the words of Job as we recognize quickly when we start to read the passage in the context of the complete chapter, Job 10. Note in particular verse 2.

 2  I [Job] will say to God: ...

10  Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese, 
11  clothe me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews? 

In fact, in his lamentation against God, Job goes as far as to claim

13   But this is what you concealed in your heart, 
     and I know that this was in your mind: ...

We see how Job claims to know God's innermost thoughts, and this is certainly a wrong claim, as Muslims will readily acknowledge. When God finally answers Job, He makes it very clear in his response that Job has no basis of accusation against God, let alone knowing all of God's thoughts. We read in chapter 38:

 1  Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:
 2  "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? 
 3  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. 
 4  Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? 
    Tell me, if you understand. ..." 

Clearly, God rebukes Job as having spoken without knowledge and proper understanding. Again, in chapter 40, we read:

 1  The LORD said to Job:
 2  "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? 
     Let him who accuses God answer him!" 
 3  Then Job answered the LORD: 
 4  "I am unworthy - how can I reply to you? 
     I put my hand over my mouth. 
 5   I spoke once, but I have no answer - 
             twice, but I will say no more." 

Here, Job himself recognizes that he had misspoken when he had questioned God the way he did.

It should be obvious now, that we cannot possibly infer from the speech of Job in chapter ten, that God teaches outdated Aristotelian medicine in the Bible, any more than we can claim that God teaches that "Ezra is the son of Allah" in the Qur'an. These statements are reported in both books as being from certain human beings only, but are not the authoritative teaching of God.

With this observation, the article of Mr. KarÓm has lost all its substance. There are, however, a few more observations that I would like to make. One of the terms that seemingly aggrevated Mr. KarÓm was the word "plagiarise". Even though the charge of God making the error of incorporating outdated Greek medicine into his revelation does not longer stick, what about the claim that the author of the book of Job plagiarised Aristotle? First we need to ask who is older. Since Mr. KarÓm loves to quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which we do not necessarily consider authoritative on Biblical scholarship), let us bring a quotation about the date of writing, as it states in regard to the poetic portion (containing chapter 10) that

Most scholars have [in the past] dated this section to the 4th century BCE, but there is a growing tendency to regard it as two centuries earlier, during the period of the exile.[1]

This is according to the opinion of liberal scholars. Conservative Christian scholars mostly place the book of Job into the ninth century BC. The source of Mr. KarÓm's statements is the book by Joseph Needham which was written over fourty years ago, and the part speculating about Aristotelian influence on the book of Job was reasonable in its time, but is clearly outdated according to current Biblical scholarship. When we recognize in addition that Aristotle lived in 384-322 BC, then the question would rather be whether Aristotle plagiarised from the book of Job. In contrast, there is no question that Muhammad lived and the Qur'an was written long after Galen.

Is the word "plagiarise" appropriate at all? Aristotle did not write a research paper, he was not claiming to be the originator of new insights. Aristotle's works could best be compared to textbooks, teaching the general medical knowledge of his time, some of which might well have been considerably older than Aristotle himself. It is no surprise that similar formulations should be found in writings other than his own which date from about the same time give or take a few centuries. That does not mean one plagiarised the other, it only means that both authors drew on a pool of general knowledge, and none of them claimed any originality in these statements, In the contrary, they were made because they were generally accepted. Mr. KarÓm has given us a reasonable definition of the word, when he wrote, "To plagiarise something is to commit literary theft by appropriating and passing off the ideas or words of another as one's own." Nowhere in the book of Job was the statement under consideration claimed to be a new and original invention by Job or the author of the book. In fact, from the way these verses are formulated

10  Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese, 
11  clothe me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews? 

we recognize them as a rethorical question which presumes a affirmative answer not so much from God, but from the reader who recognizes this statement as something he could have said himself. This was the way the educated people at the time thought about the development of an embryo. We might never find out who first came up with this description of embryological development, but stating a piece of common knowledge never constitutes plagiarism.

Does the same observation and conclusion apply to the Qur'an?

Returning now to the Qur'an, we obviously have ask whether similar considerations apply here. Will these insights help us to understand better the embryological statements in the Qur'an? I think the same dynamic we have seen in the book of Job applies equally to the Qur'an. In the embryological passages of the Qur'an Muhammad only stated what was common and accepted knowledge at the time. What else would anybody expect out of the mouth of God other than what is understood to be true?

Just as Muslims today expect to find in the Qur'an the most up-to-date scientific understanding on any issue, because God certainly knows exactly what is true (scientifically), the same way it was in Muhammad's time. Any believer in the Qur'an would have had the same expectation. Any unbeliever would have pointed out quickly if the Qur'an had not been in agreement with the scientific understanding of the day. Furthermore, just as today Muslims seek to line up the statements of the Qur'an with that which is considered scientifically true, in order that non-Muslims may believe in the Qur'an, the same way Muhammad back then sought to make the words of revelation line up with what was considered scientifically accurate in his day.

In his time, Muhammad was not plagiarizing; the text only included a statement of common knowledge with no claim for originality. The point of the sermon was not the revelation of embryological knowledge, the point was the conclusion the listener was supposed to draw from what he already knew. Please read one of these passages, e.g. Sura 23:13-14 in its context. Read the whole of Sura 23. What is the structure of the argument? What is its purpose?

When we compare the Qur'anic passage with the Galenic description, what is the main difference? Galen gives a scientific description of the development of the embryo as he understood it at the time. Galen only deals with the observable facts. He is concerned with "what happens." He does not ask why this happens. In the Qur'an we similarly find a description of the development as it was understood at the time, but it is no longer the account of a distanced observer. The main difference is that in the Qur'an the question of "why" or better the issue of "who" is addressed. God is inserted into (or "recognized in) the process. It becomes a sermon, where God is speaking to the listener in the first person, by telling him: You know the development of a human being, you know that man came from earth, and then, everyone, is first a drop of semen, then turns into a clot, the clot into a little lump, then bones appear which are being clothed by flesh, ..." but what you might not have properly acknowledged is that WE (Allah) did all that.

"Verily WE created man from a product of wet earth; then (WE) 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!"

What is the point of the passage? It is: Now that you know that Allah is your Creator and the Creator of all people around you, give Him thanks, fear and obey Him!

The rest of the sura is similar. What is known to them is recounted as a foundation on which the listener is then called to repentance. (You know the story of) Noah and the people who disbelieved him, and how God punished them. Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh, remember how they were scorned, but God punished Pharoah for it. You know all that; therefore don't be like those unbelievers, but instead take this message seriously and fear God, live righteously, observe the prayers, etc.

It was known at all times, that one can only draw correct conclusions from correct assumptions, and all proofs need to be based on true axioms. It is just the same way here. The conclusions in the sura are based on what is generally known and acknowledged to be true. The point of the message are the implications which the listener is urged to draw from these well known facts. This includes the embryological statements.

What has this to do with the discussion of the plagiarization charge? Though the Qur'an verses 13-14 were originally only a poetic re-statement of 7th century common knowledge, it becomes an issue of plagiarizing when Muslims today claim that these statements are original and even miraculous insight, something never known before. This way they are "appropriating and passing off the ideas or words of another [Galen, or common knowledge of the time] as (solely) God's own". This denial that these embryological descriptions were known, the claim that they are revelatory insight directly and only from God, that is what turns a statement of common knowledge into one of plagiarizing Galenic teaching.

Conclusion

The original rebuttal has clearly shown wrong the claims of an embryological miracle in the Qur'an by identifying the statements as being well known at this time. From this historical evidence as well as from the logic of the argument in the text of the Qur'an itself it was shown, that far from being a miraculous insight, unknown at the time and which could only have come from a divine source, it is actually just a statement of 7th century common knowledge. The Qur'an is not from a tablet in heaven which contains only eternal truth (scientific and otherwise) but clearly a document of its time, containing the contemporary human understanding of its environment, an understanding which is outdated today on a scientific level. The problem for the Muslim reader will obviously be how to explain that Galenic embryology is presented in the Qur'an as direct speech of God in the first person.

Reference:

[1] "biblical literature: Job", Encyclopśdia Britannica Online,
<http://www.eb.com:180/bol/topic?eu=119708&sctn=4> [Accessed July 5 1999].
Copyright © 1994-1999 Encyclopśdia Britannica, Inc.


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