Allah's Forgotten Creatures

A Qur'an and Science Issue

While working on the article about a contradiction between S. 15:27 and 21:30 (*), I found another a verse that is a close parallel to S. 21:30.

Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and we made EVERY living thing of water? Will they not then believe? 21:30 Pickthall

However, this related verse contains an additional problematic statement that will be the topic of this article.

Allah has created EVERY moving (living) creature from water. Of them there are some that creep on their bellies, some that walk on two legs, and some that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills. Verily! Allah is Able to do all things. S. 24:45 Al-Hilali & Khan

And Allah has created from water EVERY living creature: so of them is that which walks upon its belly, and of them is that which walks upon two feet, and of them is that which walks upon four; Allah creates what He pleases; surely Allah has power over all things. S. 24:45 Shakir

Aren't there a lot of creatures missing in the "divine categorization" of living creatures that is given in S. 24:45? The author starts with making a comprehensive, all-inclusive statement. He speaks about "every living creature". First he refers to their common origin, i.e. that all of them were created from water, and then he categorizes them according to what distinguishes them, their characteristic property. He gives three categories in which those creatures exist:

However, as intuitive as these three categories may appear at first sight, the author of S. 24:45 forgot a huge number of species when he made this statement. Even the Qur'an mentions several creatures that are not covered by this categorization: the gnat (2:26), the bee (16:68), the fly (22:73), and moths (101:4) which are all insects and walk on six legs, the spider (29:41) that walks on eight legs, and all kinds of fish (5:96, 18:61, 37:142) which have no legs and are not walking (or creeping) at all.[1] Moreover, apart from those various creatures mentioned in the Qur'an, there are the octopus ("eight foot", actually, there are about 300 species of octopus, source) and other cephalopods, various crabs that have ten legs (1, 2), caterpillars, centipedes and millipedes, all of which are not mentioned in the Qur'an.

In fact, for anyone concerned about the "scientific miracle of the Qur'an" the omission of the six-legged insects must be devastating since science teaches that there are vastly more insects than there are animals with no legs, two or four legs taken together. The Wikipedia entry on Insects starts with these words:

Insects (Class Insecta) are the biggest class of arthropods and the only ones with wings. They are the most diverse group of animals on the planet. They are most diverse at the equator and their diversity declines toward the poles. With over a million described species — more than half of all known living organisms[2][3] — with estimates of undescribed species as high as 30 million, thus potentially representing over 90% of the differing life forms on the planet.[4] (Source, accessed on 25 March 2009; underline emphasis mine)

Add to that almost 40,000 living species of spiders (source), about 3,000 described species of centipedes (and an estimated number of 8,000 species, source), and around 10,000 species of millipeds (source), and 6,793 known species of crabs (source), and almost 28,000 known extant species of fish (source), it should be glaringly obvious that Allah forgot to mention the vast majority of his creatures — and that in a verse talking explicitly about "every living creature", and then categorizing these creatures. Again, Allah forgot to include the vast majority of creatures existing on this planet in his categorization of living creatures!

Moreover, for those Muslims who believe in the miraculous scientific accuracy of the Qur'an we need to point out that these quranic categories sort the creatures in wrong ways, grouping together those that do not belong together, and separating those that should be grouped together. Just a few examples: scientifically, mammals are one family, but the Qur'an separates two-legged mammals (human beings and perhaps some kinds of apes) from the four-legged mammals. It joins (most) mammals with (most) reptiles on the superficial characteristic that they have four legs, but separates the reptiles, and even the lizards from each other, since most lizards have four legs but the slowworm (blindworm) is a lizard without legs (1, 2, 3).

But the list in S. 24:45 was not intended to be comprehensive!

Muslims who want to rescue the Qur'an from such an error, a statement contrary to established scientific facts, have little choice but to argue that S. 24:45 only gives some examples of different kinds of creatures but that this statement was not supposed to cover all creatures, appearance to the contrary. The statement should not be taken in a literal way, but it only illustrates the power of Allah by alluding to several different kinds of animals.

Is there any solid evidence that would support such an interpretation? Anything beyond mere assertion? In the following, I will present the reasons that appear to support of a literal reading. [Furthermore, see my observations on the tafsir of al-Qurtubi (below) which also does not support the interpretation that this verse only gives some examples.]

First, a mere statement that there exist animals that walk on four legs, others that walk on two legs and yet others that glide over the ground without any legs is an utter triviality. That is an observation that can be made by a four-year old child. We do not need divine revelation for that. But either it is an utter triviality, or it is indeed intended as a categorization of every living being, but then it is not only incomplete but wrong by all scientific standards.

How does the author of the Qur'an deal with numbers? Let's examine some statements from the Qur'an involving numbers, specificially verses in which a statement goes beyond a certain stated number (or amount):

Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females, and if there be women more than two, then theirs is two-thirds of the inheritance, and if there be one (only) then the half. And to each of his parents a sixth of the inheritance, if he have a son; and if he have no son and his parents are his heirs, then to his mother appertaineth the third; and if he have brethren, then to his mother appertaineth the sixth, after any legacy he may have bequeathed, or debt (hath been paid). Your parents and your children: Ye know not which of them is nearer unto you in usefulness. It is an injunction from Allah. Lo! Allah is Knower, Wise. S. 4:11 Pickthall

And We sent him to a hundred thousand (folk) or more[2] S. 37:147 Pickthall

Hast thou not seen that Allah knoweth all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth? There is no secret conference of three but He is their fourth, nor of five but He is their sixth, nor of less than that or more but He is with them wheresoever they may be; and afterward, on the Day of Resurrection, He will inform them of what they did. Lo! Allah is Knower of all things. S. 58:7 Pickthall

Surely Allah is not ashamed to set forth any parable -- (that of) a gnat or any thing above that; ... S. 2:26 Shakir

It should be obvious that the Qur'an contains several statements using expressions like "and/or more", or "more than ____", and whoever can say "and anything above that", can also say "and any number above that". In these statements, the author made it clear that he refers not only to the number(s) that is/are stated but a higher number is also in view. If that would have been the intention for S. 24:45 as well, then the author could easily have added one more phrase to S. 24:45, saying, for example, "and some that walk on four legs or more" or "and some whose legs are more than four", or "with legs more than four", "and some that walk on four or a number above that", or "walk on four or even more", or some similar expression.[3] However, he did not, and that needs to be taken seriously.

After all, who among our Muslim readers would dare to add "or more" in this list:

And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course. S. 4:3 Shakir

Are the stated numbers not supposed to be definite? Does the Muslim want to argue these numbers are mere suggestions or samples, an open-ended list intended to include the permission to marry six or ten or twenty wives? And the structure in S. 4:3 is very similar to the one found in S. 24:45. The three options (or categories) are joined with "wa" (and).

I think, it is fair to say that in those cases when the Qur'an makes statements that are not restricted to the numbers that are stated explicitly but only gives some examples and implies that there is more, then it adds a phrase like "or more". But if that is not there, then the Qur'an means what it says. Anything else is not taking the Qur'an seriously and opens the door to arbitrary interpretation.

Muslims who insist that we should read the verse as if it contained the words "or more" are saying that Allah cannot be trusted in regard to clearly expressing what he wants to say and they need to "help Allah" out in order to make clear what he should have said. It also means that Allah is inconsistent in his formulations, and therefore it is up to the believer (or unbeliever) whether he wants to add "or more" in this, that or the other statement. That is arbitrary, and basically says that Allah meant, but forgot, to add these words. Such an approach replaces the problem of "Allah forgetting to mention certain creatures" with "Allah forgetting to add a rather important phrase" in this verse in order to clarify what he actually means.

Finally, some may say, the third part of S. 24:45 covers the rest of the creatures. In other words, there are actually four categories:

That does not seem to be a valid interpretation. The last part of the verse is not an additional category but a conclusion (giving praise to God) presented as a reflection on what was stated before. The three categories are joined with "wa" (and): "those walking with no legs" AND "those walking with two legs" AND "those walking with four legs". There is no third "wa" joining the text that follows to the other three categories. This change in structure does not allow for understanding the concluding reflection as a fourth category.

I agree that giving a complete categorization of all creatures is not the main thrust of this verse. Its main message is the power of Allah who created everything and who is able to do all things. That is how this verse starts and ends, "Allah has created every moving (living) creature ... Allah creates what He wills. Verily! Allah is Able to do all things." Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the author of the Qur'an was somewhat sloppy or casual in the formulation of the middle part of this verse; he did not carefully think about the statement that was intended to illustrate the vastness of Allah's creative power.

Assuming the human origin of the Qur'an, these observations are easy to understand. It should be obvious that Muhammad, as a man living in the Arabian desert in the seventh century, could not imagine that God's creation was actually vastly more diverse than what he was aware of. It is also understandable that insects may simply have slipped his mind when he composed that verse. This "slip of mind" explanation makes sense and is acceptable for a human author, but it is difficult to accept when one wants to believe that the Qur'an comes directly from the all-knowing and all-wise God. Even more so, when one believes that Allah intended the "scientific miracle of the Qur'an" to prove its divine authorship.

Which of the companions of Muhammad corrupted the text of the Qur'an?

Al-Qurtubi provides the following interesting commentary on S. 24:45.

“so of them is that which walks upon its belly, and of them is that which walks upon two feet, and of them is that which walks upon four; Allah creates what He pleases ...”

The walking on the belly is for snakes and fish and the likes of worms and others. Upon two feet is for humans and birds when they walk. Upon four is for all other animals.

In Ubayy’s (copy of the) Qur'an: “and of them who walks upon more”. Hence in this addition he included all animals such as crab, however this is a copy of the Qur'an which did not gain consensus. Al-Naqqash said: the verse used four feet in lieu of more than that because all animals depend on four feet for walking, and those animals who have more than four legs do not need these additional legs ... (Arabic source, translation by Mutee'a al-Fadi)

We can see that this Muslim commentator is struggling to make sense of the statement in the Qur'an, but his assertions are not really convincing.

To use the expression "walking on the belly" is already somewhat strange, since "walking" presupposes legs, but to claim that this expression also includes fish is more than a stretch. At least snakes are gliding over the ground; they are indeed using their bellies to move forward (i.e. their body movement with the friction of the belly on the ground etc.). However, fish are not usually touching the ground with their bellies and do not use their bellies to move. Fish use fins and tails to move forward. The belly of a fish is not contributing any more to its movement than its back.

"Upon four is for all other animals" is a desperate claim. The number four is not a representative for all numbers "four and higher" any more in this verse than in S. 4:3. Moreover, not all animals depend on four feet for walking. On one hand, besides human beings there are animals that can walk on only two legs (birds, apes, kangaroos). On the other hand, millipeds would not be able to walk on only four of their feet if the others were removed. Even crabs would be severly handicapped if six of their ten feet were amputated. Does al-Naqqash know better than their creator when he claims that "those animals who have more than four legs do not need these additional legs"? Did God create what is entirely superfluous?

However, the main reason for quoting this commentary is the reference to Ubayy's codex of the Qur'an in which the text of this verse contains an extra phrase that would solve at least the greater part of the problem discussed in this article (but fish are still not covered). This early textual variant is testimony that already (some of) the companions of Muhammad realized that there is a serious problem with this verse.

A number of uncomfortable questions arise: Which of the companions did corrupt the Qur'an? Did Ubayy ibn Ka'b improve on the text "revealed" to Muhammad? Or did Zaid ibn Thabit accidentally or deliberately omit this phrase when he worked on his "revised standard version" (RSV[4]) of the Qur'an? Or was Muhammad so confused that he recited it at times in one form and at other times in the other form? How can any Muslim know for sure which version is the authentic text? How does he deal with the fact that the version that became the standard is scientifically wrong? How many more places are there in the Qur'an where the "wrong variant" became standardized?

Moreover, as indicated above, al-Qurtubi confirms my argument in the last section. He realizes that there are animals that do not naturally belong in any of the three given categories. Nevertheless, he does not therefore argue that this verse only mentions these three categories as examples and that Allah's statement is not trying to cover all living creatures. On the contrary, he tries to fit all creatures into the given categories which is evidence that he understands these given categories as being comprehensive. He even points out that there is a different reading of the text that would solve the problem of animals with more feet than four in a more elegant way. But since he does not dare to go against the standard reading and the "consensus", he tries to gather support for including all animals with more than four feet in the category of those with four feet. Clearly, in the understanding of al-Qurtubi, the three given categories should actually cover all creatures, and so he "(re)defines" what creatures should be assigned to which category.

He does not even consider it an option that Allah's statement could be incomplete regarding the categories given and that it was not intending to cover all creatures.

A similar observation can be made in Ibn Kathir's commentary:

Allah mentions His complete and almighty power to create all the different kinds of animals
with their various forms, colors and ways of moving and stopping
, from one kind of water.
(Of them there are some that creep on their bellies,) like snakes and so on;
(and some that walk on two legs,) like humans and birds;
(and some that walk on four,) like cattle and all kinds of animals. Allah says:
(Allah creates what He wills.) meaning by His power, because what He wills happens
and what He does not will does not happen. So he says:
(Verily, Allah is able to do all things.) (Source; bold emphasis mine)

Just like al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir also does not say that these are not all categories, not that there are other animals that are not covered by these categories, and the given categories are only examples, but he also claims that the category of those walking on four covers "all kinds of animals". In fact, in his first statement he even speaks specifically of "all the different kinds of animals" (as opposed to "all animals"), and the word kind is pointing to an understanding that a categorization of all animals is in view in this verse.

Appendix: The second category and its questionable members

The second category given in S. 24:45 is actually problematic. What did the author of the Qur'an really think of in regard to two-legged creatures? There are not many animals that walk on two legs, particularly when we take the following two verses from the Qur'an into consideration:

There is not a moving (living) creature (dabbatin) on earth, nor a bird that flies with its two wings, but are communities like you. We have neglected nothing in the Book, then unto their Lord they (all) shall be gathered. S. 6:38 Al-Hilali & Khan

And of men and AdDawab (moving living creatures, beasts, etc.), and cattle, in like manner of various colours. It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah. Verily, Allah is AllMighty, OftForgiving. S. 35:28 Al-Hilali & Khan

S. 6:38 mentions the birds separately from the moving living creatures (dabbatin, the same word as in S. 24:45), implying that birds are not to be counted among those. The Qur'an recognizes that the distinguishing characteristic of birds is not that (or how) they walk, but that they fly. Characterizing the species of birds as "walking on two legs" sounds rather misguided. Does that mean the birds are out?

S. 35:28 suggests that humans may not be part of the crawling creatures either. Even though AdDawab in 35:28 is not identical to dabbatin in 24:45, the two words seem to be synonyms, since Al-Hilali & Khan render both terms with virtually the same translation. Mentioning men and "moving creatures" separately may suggest that human beings are not understood to be part of these creatures. On the other hand, cattle are also mentioned separately, but are without doubt part of the moving living creatures. So this observation from 35:28 is not conclusive.

What about angels and jinn? Most commentators seem to explicitly exclude them. Why? Islamic theology, based on Qur'an and hadith, teaches regarding the creatures of the transcendent world that angels were created from light and jinn were created from fire (15:27; 55:15), in contrast to the creatures of this world that were created from water (21:30; 24:45). However, the Qur'an does not exclude the jinn or angels from these verses, and particularly for S. 21:30 a good case can be made that jinn have to be included among "the living things". If we include the jinn (and angels) then 21:30 is merely another element in the contradiction regarding the creation of jinn, discussed here. But if we exclude them, this second category is nearly empty.[5]

In any case, we are somewhat hard-pressed to find species that are clearly included in the second category of S. 24:45. What did the author of the Qur'an really think of in regard to two-legged creatures?

Perhaps we can include a couple of birds which can't fly in the category of two-legged walkers? The author of the Qur'an was perhaps aware of ostriches (37:47 is a somewhat veiled reference where some translators add the word ostrich in parentheses). Moreover, penguins are also birds that cannot fly but only walk on two legs (apart from being excellent swimmers).

Still, the Qur'an mentions a category that has very few members and leaves out the category of six-legged animals which are by far the largest group if we want to categorize creatures according to their number of legs at all.


1. In fact, one of the verses mentioning fish contains a formulation that becomes rather ironic in this context:

... then I forgot the fish – and it was Satan himself that made me forget it so that I should not remember it ... S. 18:63 Arberry

Does that mean that S. 24:45 is actually another "Satanic verse" in the Qur'an, since its actual shape was influenced by Satan?

[Attention! Red alert for those who have problems to detect humor: Yes, this footnote is a joke! I could simply not resist including this rather funny observation. That means there is no need to write a rebuttal to this footnote, cf. Bassam Zawadi's catastrophic and misguided rebuttal (*) to a section of sarcasm and parody in another one of my articles.]

2. Actually, this verse is a statement of ignorance. Had it been "to more than 100,000" it could have been a statement by somebody who has certain knowledge, who knows it was more than 100,000 but did not consider it important to say how many more than 100,000. That number is good enough, it is not necessary to be more specific. But adding "or more" after the number betrays that the speaker is actually not so sure about the number. This formulation reveals the ignorance of the speaker. See also the article, Is Allah an All-Knowing God?

3. Or he could have broken the focus on the number of legs and said something like "and other kinds of creatures".

4. Maybe we should call it the Caliph Uthman Version (CUV) just as we have the KJV (King James Version) of the Bible in English?

5. However, we also read:

And among HIS signs is the creation of the Heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures (dabbatin) HE has spread forth in both. And HE has the power to gather them together whenever HE pleases. S. 42:29 Al-Hilali & Khan

Here the same word is used for the living creatures in the heavens and the earth as is used in S. 24:45 for "every living creature" (kulla dabbatin). Since S. 42:29 obviously includes the angels and jinn (or, if not, what else would be the creatures in the heavens?) one could perhaps argue that jinn and angels are also included in S. 24:45. After all, they also walk around on earth, though not exclusively.

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