Embryology in the Qur'an

In the early 1980s, Prof. Keith Moore, formerly an anatomist at the University of Toronto, Canada produced a special edition of his embryology textbook, the standard version of which has been widely used in medical schools around the world. Apparently when he first read what the Qur'an had to say about the development of the human embryo he was "astonished by the accuracy of the statements that were recorded in the 7th century AD, before the science of embryology was established"[1]. Much has subsequently been written by Muslims in an attempt to demonstrate that the Qur'an, which is claimed to be God's ultimate revelation contains statements about how humans develop inside the womb which could not possibly have been known at the time that it was revealed to Muhammed. Indeed, a recent book confirms the extent to which this has been happening:

Dubai's medical school recently introduced a compulsory course for all students: Islamic Medicine. The program seeks to link all modern medicine, including genetics, to the Koran. Such courses have their genesis in orthodox Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have spent considerable sums on medical conferences at which leading Western scientists are asked to confirm that Koranic verses, which seem vague to the layperson, are in fact specific predictors of modern science. Videos and pamphlets from the conferences have been circulated throughout the Muslim world by the Saudis [2].

If it is indeed true that certain verses accurately foretell modern scientific ideas which could not be tested in the seventh century, then it implies that the Qur'an must have had a divine author. It is the intention of this paper to examine what exactly was known about the human embryo at the time of Muhammed in order to see whether any of the theories expressed in the Qur'an were true or indeed well known before this time.


The origins of life according to the Qur'an

There are at least 60 verses which deal explicitly with human reproduction and development, but these are scattered throughout the Qur'an and many of the themes are repeated over and over again, as is common to much of the book. A useful place to begin would be the material out of which we are created. One would expect the Qur'an to be unambiguous about such an elementary matter, but the verses listed show just how much uncertainty there appears to be in our origins. Note that except where indicated the translation used is the translation of Yusuf Ali (Saudi Revised Edition).

Could it be from earth?

11:61 It is He Who hath produced you from the earth

Or dry clay (Arabic Salsaal)?

15:26,28,33 We created man from sounding clay
17:61 ... Thou didst create from clay
32:7 He began the creation of man from clay

Did we come from nothing?

19:67 We created him before out of nothing

No, we did not!

52:35 Were they created of nothing?

Did we come from mud?

23:12 We created man from a product of wet earth (loam) (Pickthall)
23:12 Man We did create from a quintessence (of clay)
38:71 I am about to create a mortal out of mire

Or water?

25:54 It is He Who has created man from water (see also 21:30, 24:45)

Could it be dust?

3:59 He created (Jesus) out of dust
30:20 He created you from dust
35:11 Allah did create you from dust ....

Perhaps we arose from the dead or from one person?

30:19 It is He who brings out the living from the dead
39:6 He created you from a single Person (see also 4:1)

To resolve the considerable ambiguity about what exactly we are made of, it has been suggested that all of the above are complimentary accounts, in the same way that a loaf of bread could be said to be made of dough, flour, carbohydrate or molecules. This evades the issue however. The metaphorical description of God making man out of the dust of the earth is ancient and predates the Qur'an by thousands of years; it is found in the Bible in Genesis 2:7. If this was literal it would be in direct scientific conflict with evolutionists who maintain that life was created out of the oceans, but Muslims maintain that we were created both from the oceans and from earth.


The drop of fluid or semen

In a number of places we are informed that man is created from a drop of fluid (semen, seed or sperm):

16:4 He created man from a drop of fluid (Pickthall)
16:4 He has created man from a sperm-drop
32:8 He made his seed from a quintessence of despised fluid
35:11 ... then from a little fluid (Pickthall)
53:46 (he created) from a drop of seed when it is poured forth (Pickthall)
53:46 From a sperm-drop when lodged (in its place)
56:58 Have ye seen that which ye emit (Pickthall)
56:58 Do you then see? The (human Seed) that ye emit
75:37 Was he not a drop of fluid which gushed forth (Pickthall)
75:37 Was he not a drop of sperm emitted (in lowly form)?
76:2 We create man from a drop of thickened fluid (Pickthall)
76:2 We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm
77:20 Did We not create you from a worthless water (semen, etc.)? (Al-Hilali & Khan)
80:19 From a sperm-drop He hath created him
86:6-7 He is created from a drop emitted - proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs.

Could any of this have been known to sixth-century Muslims at the time of Muhammed? Surely that procreation involves the emission of a drop of fluid has been well known from the earliest days of civilization. In Genesis 38:9 the Bible tells us that Onan "spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother". The verses which describe the origin of life as a drop of emitted fluid are therefore no more than a direct observation as to what is released during the act of sexual intercourse. We hardly need to rely upon divine inspiration to inform us of this fact.

In the verses listed above nutfah is used when describing the fluid which gushes out during sexual intercourse and clearly this can only refer to semen. However, Prof. Moore is keen to translate nutfah in sura 76:2 as "mingled fluid" [3] and explains that this Arabic term refers to the male and female fluids which contain the gametes (male sperm and female egg). While it is true that the ancient Greeks would not have been able to see individual sperm or eggs, these only being visible through the microscope, the Qur'an emphatically does not mention sperm or eggs; it simply says nutfah. This can reasonably be translated semen, or at a push, germinal fluid - which was a term used as early as Hippocrates [4] who spoke of male and female reproductive fluids (but obviously could not have been aware of the cells contained in the fluids). If Moore wishes to translate nutfah as germinal fluid, he inadvertently reinforces that the Qur'an is borrowing this term from the Greeks.

Sura 86:6 is interesting since it claims that during the act of sexual intercourse before which a man is created, the "gushing fluid" or semen issues from between the loins and ribs. Semen is apparently coming out of the area around the kidneys and back, which is a real problem for we know that the testicles are the sites of sperm production (although the ancient Greeks were not so convinced. Aristotle for example amusingly believed that they functioned as weights to keep the seminal passages open during sexual intercourse [5]).

The explanation offered by Muslims [6] for the strange statement in this sura relates to the fact that the testicles originally develop from tissue in the area of the kidneys, when the man from whom sperm is gushing forth was himself an embryo. In other words, in a very convoluted fashion the sperm originates from the area between the loins and ribs because that is where the testicles which are producing the sperm originally form.

There is a rather less complicated explanation for this verse however. The Greek physician Hippocrates and his followers taught in the fifth century BC that semen comes from all the fluid in the body, diffusing from the brain into the spinal marrow, before passing through the kidneys and via the testicles into the penis [7]. Clearly according to this view sperm originates from the region of the kidneys, and although there is obviously no substance to this teaching today, it was well-known in Muhammed's day, and shows how the Qur'an could contain such an erroneous statement.

A bust of Hippocrates

Of course it could be argued against all this that the reference to coming from the loins is merely a metaphorical figure of speech. We can find examples of this in sura 7:172 "when thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants" or 4:23 "prohibited to you (for marriage) are ... wives of your sons proceeding from your loins". But if so then it has to be accepted that this is a common usage for Middle Eastern cultures [8]; in the Torah God promises Jacob that "kings shall come out of your loins (chalatzecha)" (Gen 35:11). Later in the Bible a promise is made to David's "son that shall come forth out of your loins" (I Kings 8:19) and in the New Testament Peter refers to the same person as "one from the fruit of his loins" (Greek osphus). However, these are examples of a metaphorical use of the word "loins" (Arabic sulb). Sura 86:6 is clearly talking about the physical act of intercourse; gushing fluid and ribs (tar a'ib) are both very physical and in the context of this verse they clearly refer to the site of semen production as wrongly taught by Hippocrates. So we have found the first example of an incorrect ancient Greek idea re-emerging in the Qur'an.


Embryological development in the Qur'an

Sura 22:5 says "We created you out of dust, then out of sperm, then out of a leech-like clot, then from a morsel of flesh, partly formed and partly unformed ... and We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term, then do We bring you out as babes." Sura 23:13-14 repeats this idea by saying God "placed him as (a drop of) sperm (nutfah) in a place of rest, firmly fixed; then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood (alaqa); then out of that clot We made a (foetus) lump (mudghah), then We made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed out of it another creature." 75:38 also says man becomes an alaqa and 96:2 says we came from alaq.

Moore however goes further and incredibly he claims in a later edition of his textbook that the Qur'an "states that the resulting organism settles in the womb like a seed, 6 days after its beginning" [9]. This really would be amazing if it was true. Actually the Qur'an says nothing of the sort.

We have to ask what the precise meaning of these words is in order to know whether the verses contain important scientific statements that have only recently been discovered, as Moore and others claim. In comparison with the meaning of nutfah, it is rather more difficult to understand what alaqa means. Many different suggestions have been made: clot (Pickthall, Maulana Muhammed Ali, Muhammed Zafrulla Khan, Hamidullah), small lump of blood (Kasimirski), leech-like clot (Yusuf Ali), and "leech, suspended thing or blood clot" (Moore, op. cit.). Moore suggests that the appearance of an embryo of 24 days' gestation resembles a leech, though this is rather debatable. In side view the developing umbilicus (genetically part of the embryo) is almost as big as the "leech-shaped" part into which a human is formed and the developing placenta (which also consists of tissue that is genetically from the embryo) is much larger than the embryo. It is claimed that the ancient sages would not have been able to see an embryo about 3mm long and describe it as leech-like, but Aristotle correctly described the function of the umbilical cord, by which the embryo "clings" to the uterus wall in the fourth century B.C. [10]. It is impossible to believe the suggestion of Bachir Torki [11] that alaq in 96:2 means links, referring to the gene code of DNA, as this makes a nonsense out of other verses where the word is used, such as 22:5 ("we made you from a drop of sperm, then from that a gene code, then from that a little lump of flesh....").

A 24/25 day embryo at the alaqa stage, approx. 2 mm long

To establish a definition for alaqa we might take a look at the Qamus al-Muheet, one of the most important Arabic dictionaries ever compiled, by Muhammed Ibn-Yaqub al-Firuzabadi (AD 1329-1415) [12]. He says that alaqa has the same meaning as a clot of blood. In 96:2 the word alaq is used, which is both a collective plural and a verbal noun. The latter form conveys the sense of man being created from clinging material or possibly clay, which is consistent with the creation of Adam in the Bible from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) and some of the other Qur'anic verses listed above. However, the translators of the Qur'an have all translated alaq as "clot" as opposed to "clinging" in 96:2 because the use of the singular alaqa elsewhere forces them to use "clot" here too, despite the attraction for the meaning "clinging" or leech-like which is perhaps more scientifically accurate.

Another source of information are the early Muslim commentators. Ibn Kathir wrote that when the drop of water (nutfah) settled in the womb it stayed there for forty days and then became a red clot (alaqa), staying there for another forty days before turning to mudghah, a piece of flesh without shape or form. Finally it began to take on a shape and form. Both ar-Razi and as-Suyuti [13] claimed that the dust referred both to Adam's creation and to the man's discharge; nutfah referred to the water from the male and alaqa was a solidified piece of blood clot. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (died about AD 1350) wrote that "the foetus is a living or dead babe animal which is sometimes found in the womb of a slaughtered animal, and its blood is congested" [14]. Another great physician, Ibn al-Quff wrote some 13 out of 60 chapters from "On Health Preservation" about embryology and pregnancy. He included a further stage of development one week after conception, the foam stage or raghwah. Up to 16 days the embryo was alaqa (clot) and after 27 to 30 days the clot turns into a lump of meat, mudghah [15]. These dates must be regarded as very approximate but are nevertheless a major improvement on what one of the most reliable Hadiths says about foetal development, as we shall see later.

A 26/27 day embryo, said to resemble a mouthful of flesh, but only 3 mm long

Moving onto the next stage of development, Razi described the mudghah as being a little piece of meat the size of what a man can chew. The idea that mudghah means chewed flesh is a later, and less accurate translation of the word, but the idea has persisted because it is claimed that the somites from which the backbone and other trunk structures develop bear a passing resemblance to teeth marks implanted in plastercine. It must be said that not only is this an imaginative interpretation however, but besides, Moore cannot claim that the mudghah should occur at 26-27 days since at that point the embryo is a mere 4mm long. One would have to wait around 8 weeks before the embryo was the size of chewed flesh (if a mouthful is defined as being 20-30mm wide), which is what mudghah really means. And in the following Hadith, transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim, Muhammed claims that the mudghah stage occurs between days 80 and 120. Yet by this time the foetus is considerably larger than a lump of flesh the size of which a man can chew, and looks very human-like and totally unlike meat.

`Abdullah (b. Mas'ud) reported that Allah's Messenger ... said: "Verily your creation is on this wise. The constituents of one of you are collected for forty days in his mother's womb in the form of blood [sperm?], after which it becomes a clot of blood in another period of forty days. Then it becomes a lump of flesh and forty days later Allah sends his angel to it ..."

Thus according to Muhammed, the drop of sperm remains in the womb for 40 days, then becomes a clot for a further 40 days, then a lump of flesh for 40 days [16]. It has been shown that human sperm can only survive inside a woman's reproductive tract for a maximum of 7 days; at 80 days the embryo has very definitely acquired the shape of a human being and looks nothing like either a clot or a mouthful of flesh.

An eleven week foetus, real size 7.5 cm, but according to Muhammed still at the alaqa stage, a clot of blood

The final stage of human development which the Qur'an describes is the creation of bones, and the clothing of bones with flesh. However, according to modern embryologists including Prof. Moore, the tissue from which bone originates, known as mesoderm, is the same tissue as that from which muscle ("flesh") develops [17]. Thus bone and muscles begin to develop simultaneously, rather than sequentially. Whereas however most of the muscle tissue that we have is laid down before birth, bones continue to develop and calcify (strengthen with calcium) right into one's teenage years. So far from bones being clothed with flesh, it would be more accurate if the Qur'an had said that muscles started to develop at the same time as bones, but completed their development earlier. The idea that bones are clothed with flesh is not only scientifically completely false, but is directly copied from the ancient Greek doctor Galen, as we shall see shortly.


Some possible explanations

Aristotle believed that humans originated from the action of male semen upon female menstrual blood [18] which leaves us with something of a dilemma. If we translate alaqa as "clot" it means that the Qur'an is completely wrong about human development, since there is absolutely no stage during which the embryo consists of a clot. The only situation in which an embryo might appear like a clot is during a miscarriage, in which case the clotted blood which is seen to emerge (much of which comes from the mother incidentally) is solidified and by definition no longer alive. So if ever an embryo appeared to look like a clot it would never develop any further into a human; it would be a dead mass of bloody miscarrying flesh. Since Muhammed had several wives it is entirely likely that he would be very familiar with miscarriages. Alternatively it could be hinting at Aristotle's incorrect belief that the embryo originated from the combination of male sperm and female menstrual blood.

Moore avoids this problem by translating alaqa as a leech, since he is well aware that there is no stage in development when the embryo is a clot. As we have seen however, this is only to justify his interpretation that an embryo of 24-25 days is a clinging leech-like alaqa and one at 26-27 days is a mudghah with teeth-marks. A further problem with this view is that if the alaqa is translated "leech" because it appears to be clinging to the uterus wall, does this mean that the foetus only clings to the uterus wall for a few days? Obviously it remains attached for the entire nine months of gestation.

There are other problems with Moore's interpretation too. Not least is the claim of Muhammed that the dates of the alaqa and mudghah were 40-80 days and 80-120 days of gestation respectively, rather than 24-25 days and 26-27 days. It also begs the question as to why, if the Qur'an really is giving us a highly precise scientific account of human development, it only mentions four stages, nutfah, alaqa, mudghah, plus the clothing of bones with flesh. Between fertilization and day 28 for example Moore lists no fewer than 13 stages in his textbook. Why does the Qur'an say nothing about any of these other stages? The reality is that the more ambiguous the meaning of the Arabic terms, and the more meanings that can be attached to certain words, the less convincingly can they be said to be highly precise scientific terms.

However, the most convincing explanation, and the most worrying for those who maintain that the Qur'an is God's eternal Word, untampered with and free from any human interference, is that the Qur'an is merely repeating the teaching of the enormously influential Greek physician Galen. If this is the case, not only is the Qur'an wrong, but it also plagiarises ancient Greek literature!

A picture of Galen


The Asclepion at Pergamon (modern Bergama in Turkey)
[Click here for further pictures of this hospital]

The account of the different stages in embryology as described by the Qur'an, ar-Razi and al-Quff is identical to that taught by Galen, writing in around AD 150 in Pergamum (Bergama in modern Turkey). Galen taught that the embryo developed in four stages as detailed below.

Galen: De Semine in Greek

English translation:

But let us take the account back again to the first conformation of the animal, and in order to make our account orderly and clear, let us divide the creation of the foetus overall into four periods of time. The first is that in which. as is seen both in abortions and in dissection, the form of the semen prevails (Arabic nutfah). At this time, Hippocrates too, the all-marvelous, does not yet call the conformation of the animal a foetus; as we heard just now in the case of semen voided in the sixth day, he still calls it semen. But when it has been filled with blood (Arabic alaqa), and heart, brain and liver are still unarticulated and unshaped yet have by now a certain solidarity and considerable size, this is the second period; the substance of the foetus has the form of flesh and no longer the form of semen. Accordingly you would find that Hippocrates too no longer calls such a form semen but, as was said, foetus. The third period follows on this, when, as was said, it is possible to see the three ruling parts clearly and a kind of outline, a silhouette, as it were, of all the other parts (Arabic mudghah). You will see the conformation of the three ruling parts more clearly, that of the parts of the stomach more dimly, and much more still, that of the limbs. Later on they form "twigs", as Hippocrates expressed it, indicating by the term their similarity to branches. The fourth and final period is at the stage when all the parts in the limbs have been differentiated; and at this part Hippocrates the marvelous no longer calls the foetus an embryo only, but already a child, too when he says that it jerks and moves as an animal now fully formed (Arabic ‘a new creation’) ...

... The time has come for nature to articulate the organs precisely and to bring all the parts to completion. Thus it caused flesh to grow on and around all the bones, and at the same time ... it made at the ends of the bones ligaments that bind them to each other, and along their entire length it placed around them on all sides thin membranes, called periosteal, on which it caused flesh to grow [19].


Qur'an: Sura 23:13-14 in Arabic for comparison

English translation:

Thereafter We made him (the offspring of Adam) as a Nutfah (mixed drops of the male and female sexual discharge and lodged it) in a safe lodging (womb of the woman). Then We made the Nutfah into a clot (Alaqa, a piece of thick coagulated blood), then We made the clot into a little lump of flesh (Mudghah), then We made out of that little lump of flesh bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then We brought it forth as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of Creators!

The first stage, geniture, corresponds to [nutfah], the drop of semen; the second stage, a bloody vascularised foetus with unshaped brain, liver and heart ("when it has been filled with blood") corresponds to [alaqa], the blood clot; the third stage "has the form of flesh" and corresponds to [mudghah], the morsel of chewed flesh. The fourth and final stage, puer, was when all the organs were well formed, joints were freely moveable, and the foetus began to move [20]. If the reader is in any doubt about the clear link being described here between the Galenic and the Qur'anic stages, it may be pointed out that it was early Muslim doctors, including Ibn-Qayyim, who first spotted the similarity. Basim Musallam, Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge concludes

"The stages of development which the Qur'an and Hadith established for believers agreed perfectly with Galen's scientific account ... There is no doubt that medieval thought appreciated this agreement between the Qur'an and Galen, for Arabic science employed the same Qur'anic terms to describe the Galenic stages" [21].


Stages of development - a modern idea?

It has been said that the idea of the embryo developing through stages is a modern one, and that the Qur'an is anticipating modern embryology by depicting differing stages. However many ancient writers besides Galen taught that humans developed in different stages. For example in the Jewish Talmud we learn that the embryo has six stages of development. Samuel ha-Yehudi was a 2nd century Jewish physician, and one of many with an interest in embryology [22]. The embryo was called peri habbetten (fruit of the body) and develops as

  1. golem (formless, rolled-up thing);
  2. shefir meruqqam (embroidered foetus - shefir means amniotic sac);
  3. 'ubbar (something carried);
  4. v'alad (child);
  5. v'alad shel qayama (noble or viable child) and
  6. ben she-kallu chadashav (child whose months have been completed).

Yet with the benefit of modern science we now know that the formation of a human being is a seamless continuation from conception to birth, hence the reason why there is so much contemporary confusion about abortion and embryo research. For if we develop as a continuous process it is impossible to draw hard-and-fast boundaries about when life starts. This makes a nonsense of the Qur'anic verse which says (71:14) "When He created you by (divers) stages".


More examples of borrowing from ancient Greek writers

If we look at what the ancient Greeks taught we can clearly see that all the other references to embryology in the Qur'an and Hadith can also be traced directly back to them. For example there is a Hadith in which Muhammed is questioned about why a group of red camels have a grey camel among them, and it is due to a hidden trait. But Aristotle noticed that babies who were born that looked unlike either of their parents would often take on the appearance of their grandparents [23], so that the characteristic skipped a generation, being what we now know as recessive. He also tells us of a woman from Elis who took a black husband and although their daughter was not black, their daughter's daughter was black, demonstrating a gene which skipped a generation in exactly the same way as Muhammed described [24].

Another Hadith says "If a male's fluid prevails upon the female's substance, the child will be a male by Allah's decree, and when the substance of the female prevails upon the substance contributed by the male, a female child is formed" [25]. Surely this is not referring to dominant and recessive genes at all, as certain Muslims have claimed [26], but is simply repeating the incorrect belief of Hippocrates that both men and women produce both male and female sperm. The sex of the resulting child is determined by which sperm overwhelms the other in strength or quantity:

"... both partners alike contain both male and female sperm (the male being stronger than the female must originate from a stronger sperm). Here is a further point: if (a) both partners produce a stronger sperm then a male is the result, whereas if (b) they produce a weak form, then a female is the result. But if (c) one partner produces one kind of sperm, and the other another then the resultant sex is determined by whichever sperm prevails in quantity. For suppose that the weak sperm is much greater in quantity than the stronger sperm: then the stronger sperm is overwhelmed and, being mixed with weak, results in a female. If on the contrary the strong sperm is greater in quantity than the weak, and the weak is overwhelmed, it results in a male" [27].

Earlier in the Hadith, Muhammed says that the reproductive substance of men is white and that of women is yellow. This sounds very much like the content, white and yellow, that is found inside developing chick-eggs, and which Aristotle was known to dissect [28].

Later in the same Hadith an angel is apparently sent by Allah to shape the embryo and ask what sex it is going to be. Notwithstanding that sex is actually determined at the moment of conception according to whether the fertilised egg has two X chromosomes (female) or an X and Y chromosome (male), and that there is some ambiguity about the age of the embryo when the angel appears (Hudhaifa b. Usaid reported that Muhammed said 40 or perhaps 50 days, not 42, and Abu Tufail maintains that Muhammed said to Hudhaifa b. Usaid that sperm resided in the womb for 40 days), Hippocrates taught that it took 30 days for the male genitals to form and 42 for the female embryo [29]. No wonder the angel has to wait for forty-two days before it learns the child's sex. In reality, prior to 7 weeks of gestation the ovaries and testes appear identical and the external genitalia only start to diverge around 9 weeks.

Sura 39:6 says that God made us in stages in threefold darkness. There have been many interpretations of this verse, including that of as-Suyuti who said that there were three membranes surrounding the foetus, one to carry nutrients to it, another to absorb its urine, and the third to absorb other waste products. Elsewhere it has been suggested that they are the abdominal wall, the uterine wall and the amniotic sac in which the foetus sits. This is entirely observable to the naked eye, as Hippocrates described dissecting pregnant dogs to find puppies sitting in the amniotic sac inside the uterus [30]. A rather macabre practice of Queen Cleopatra was to rip open the wombs of her pregnant slave-girls in order to see their foetuses, according both to Rabbinic traditions and Plinius [31]. Furthermore, the Romans introduced the custom of opening the womb of a pregnant woman if she died before she had delivered her baby; the woman and her baby would be buried side-by-side, thus giving rise to the term "Caesarean section".

It is said by Muslims that sura 80:20 describes how easy Allah has made it for delivery of the infant, but this contradicts sura 46:15 ("his mother beareth him with reluctance and bringeth him forth with reluctance"). In fact 80:19 is talking about man's origins from a drop of sperm, and 80:21 about his death and burial, so it is entirely logical that 80:20 refers not to the process of parturition (giving birth) but to the whole of man's life being made easy for him by God. In the context this makes a lot more sense, does not contradict 46:15 and does not go against the weight of obstetrical evidence that makes giving birth one of the most dangerous things a woman can do in her life. (In Mozambique, childbirth is the seventh most common cause of death in women, and worldwide a woman dies in labour every 53 seconds.) The Biblical teaching that women give birth with much pain (Genesis 3:16) is far more realistic.

Sura 46:15 also says, "The duration of pregnancy and separation [weaning] is thirty months" and sura 31:14 informs us that "his separation is at the end of two years". This implies that the duration of a normal pregnancy is six months. Nowadays with advanced neonatal facilities it is just possible for a small proportion of babies born at 24 weeks' gestation to survive, albeit with severe disabilities in many cases. In Muhammed's day no babies could have survived at so premature an age, and the Qur'an is wildly inaccurate about the duration of a normal pregnancy.

Sura 33:4 says that Allah has not put two hearts into any man. Yet duplication of the heart has been admitted, albeit with reluctance by Geoffrey-Saint-Hilaire and celebrated anatomists including Littre, Meckel, Colomb, Panum, Behr, Paullini, Rhodius, Winslow and Zacutus Lusitanus [32].

In other places the Qur'an contains commands which have been claimed to be fantastically advanced and sensible, when in fact they were known and followed by far more ancient civilizations. In sura 2:222, Allah tells Muhammed that menstruation is an illness and men must not have sexual intercourse with their wives until they are cleansed from their periods. Yet 2000 years earlier Moses received the command not to have sexual intercourse during a woman's period (Torah: Leviticus 18:19) but this was very definitely not for health reasons, but for religious, ceremonial reasons. Having sex during one's period is hardly likely to cause male infertility, endometriosis and fallopian tube damage, as has been claimed by some Muslims with no scientific evidence, even if it might be unpleasant for the couple. But perhaps more importantly menstruation is not an illness; indeed the shedding of the endometrial layer of the uterus helps to prevent uterine cancer. Progesterone has to be included in hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) in post-menopausal women to induce an artificial menstruation every month to prevent a build-up of endometrium which could become cancerous!


But how could Muhammed have known these things?

It is one thing to find the Qur'an repeating the same embryological ideas as those described originally by the ancient Greeks, but is there any way in which we can be sure that the material was familiar to the Arabs of Muhammed's day? Given that so much of what the Qur'an says is based upon Galen's beliefs, it is particularly significant that some 26 books of his work were translated into Syriac as early as the sixth century AD by Sergius of Resh' Aina (Ra's al-Ain). Sergius was a Christian priest who studied medicine in Alexandria and worked in Mesopotania, dying in Constantinople in about AD 532 [33]. He was one of a number of Nestorian (Syriac) Christians who translated the Greek medical corpus into Syriac; others included Bishop Gregorius, al-Rahawy, al-Taybuti, the Patriarch Theodorus and al-Sabakti [34].

The Nestorians experienced persecution from the mainstream church and fled to Persia, where they brought their completed translations of the Greek doctors' works and founded many schools of learning. The most famous of these by far was the great medical school of Jundishapur in what is now south-east Iran, founded in AD 555 by the Persian King Chosroes the Great (also known as Anusharwan or Nushirvan), whose long reign lasted from AD 531 to around 579.

The major link between Islamic and Greek medicine must be sought in late Sasanian medicine, especially in the School of Jundishapur rather than that of Alexandria. At the time of the rise of Islam Jundishapur was at its prime. It was the most important medical centre of its time, combining the Greek, Indian and Iranian medical traditions in a cosmopolitan atmosphere which prepared the ground for Islamic medicine. The combining of different schools of medicine foreshadowed the synthesis that was to be achieved in later Islamic medicine [35].

Arab medicine, to deal with only one side of this question, borrowed from many sources. The biggest debt was to the Greeks ... The medicine of Jundi Shapur was also mainly Greek. There must have been Syriac translations in the library of the hospital there long before the Arabs came to Persia ... According to Ibn Abi Usaybi'a the first to translate Greek works into Syriac was Sergius of Ra's-al-`Ayn [sic], who translated both medical and philosophical works. It was probably he who worked for Chosroes the Great and it was his translations in all probability which were used in Jundi Shapur [36].

According to Muslim historians, especially Ibn Abi Usaybia and al-Qifti [37], the most celebrated early graduate of Jundishapur was a doctor named al Harith Ibn Kalada, who was an older contemporary of Muhammed. "He was born probably about the middle of the sixth century, at Ta'if, in the tribe of Banu Thaqif. He traveled through Yemen and then Persia where he received his education in the medical sciences at the great medical school of Jundi-Shapur and thus was intimately acquainted with the medical teachings of Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen." [38]

He became famous partly as a result of a consultation with King Chosroes [39]. Later he became a companion of the Prophet Muhammed himself, and according to the Muslim medical traditions Muhammed actually sought medical advice from him [40]. He may even have been a relative of the Prophet and his "teachings undoubtedly influenced the latter" [i.e., Muhammed] [41]. "Such medical knowledge as Muhammed possessed, he may well have acquired from Haris bin Kalda [sic], an Arab, who is said to have left the desert for a while and gone to Jundi Shapur to study medicine...On his return Haris settled in Mecca and became the foremost physician of the Arabs of the desert. Whether he ever embraced Islam is uncertain, but this did not prevent the Prophet from sending his sick friends to consult him." [42]

Harith Ibn Kalada was unable to father any children, and it is said that he adopted Harith al-Nasar (Nadr), who was apparently a cousin of Muhammed, and also a doctor by profession [43]. Interestingly Nadr mocked Muhammed, saying that the stories in the Qur'an were far less entertaining and instructive than the old Persian legends he had grown up with. Perhaps he recognised that the Qur'an had human sources for some of its stories? As a result of this Muhammed became his sworn enemy, and the Prophet put him to death following his capture in the Battle of Badr in 624 [39].

So we have just the link we need to show how "The translations (into Syriac) of Sergius Ras el Ain, penetrated to Jandi-Shapur. During the first years of the 7th century [more likely the end of the sixth century], Harith ben Kalada studied medicine there and Muhammad owed to Harith a part of his medical knowledge. Thus, with the one as well as the other, we easily recognize the traces of Greek (medicine)." [44] To summarise: Sergius died about the time that Chosroes the Great began his reign, and may even have been employed by Chosroes to translate Galen from Greek into Syriac. Halfway through his reign Chosroes founded Jundishapur, where Galen's manuscripts must surely have been kept in translation. Towards the end of his reign he had an audience with Harith Ibn Kalada, who later became associated with Muhammed.

We also know that according to Muslim traditions part of at least one verse in the Qur'an that relates to the developing human came originally from human lips. While Muhammed was dictating verse 23:14 to `Abdullah Ibn Abi Sarh, the latter got carried away by the beauty of what he heard about the creation of man, and when Muhammed reached the words "another creature" his companion uttered the exclamation "Blessed be God, the best of creators!" Muhammed accepted these words as though they were the continuation of his revelation and told Ibn Abi Sarh to write them down, even though they were quite clearly his companion's words, not Muhammed's or Allah's words [45].

This really does beg the question: since we know that at least one verse of the Qur'an contains the added words of a mere human being, how can we possibly be sure that this did not happen anywhere else in the Qur'an?

After the fall of Alexandria in AD 642 knowledge of Greek medicine spread even more rapidly throughout the Arab world. In the 9th century Hunain Ibn Ishaq (AD 809-873) made perhaps the definitive Arabic translation of Hippocrates and Galen [46], [47], [48] and al-Kindi wrote over twenty medical treatises, including one specifically on Hippocrates.

Indeed, the writers of the Arabic medical literature acknowledge as their sources the major Greek and Indian medical traditions. For example, one of the earliest Arabic compendiums of medicine is Ali at-Tabari's "Paradise of Wisdom" [49], [50], written by a Christian convert to Islam in about 850 at Samarra in Mesopotamia. In it he said that he was following the rules set down by Hippocrates and Aristotle regarding how to write his treatise. It contains 360 chapters, and the fourth Discourse, beginning at chapter 325 is entitled "From the Summaries of Indian Books". Chapter 330, from Sushrata, "The Genesis of the Embryo and of the Members" claims that the embryo results from mixing of sperm and menstrual blood (vis-a-vis Aristotle!) and describes various constituents of the embryo. The medical historian Arthur Meyer summed up the whole of the Arabic embryological tradition when he said that at-Tabari "depended largely upon Greek sources, which would seem to imply that he could obtain little from the Arabs. Moreover, since Aristotelian and Galenical teaching survived side by side for over a thousand years without a known Arabic counterpart, it is doubtful if the latter existed" [51].

An extraordinary passage from the writings of the medieval philosopher Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya shows how heavily the later Arabic writers depended upon the Greek doctors; in one continuous discourse [52] the words of Hippocrates explain the Qur'an and Hadith, and the latter are used to explain Hippocrates. For example:

"Hippocrates said ... 'some membranes are formed at the beginning, others after the second month, and others in the third month ...' That is why God says, 'He creates you in the wombs of your mothers, by one formation after another in three darknesses'. Since each of these membranes has its own darkness, when God mentioned the stages of creation and transformation from one state to another, He also mentioned the darknesses of the membranes. Most commentators explain: 'it is the darkness of the belly, and the darkness of the womb, and the darkness of the placenta' ... Hippocrates said, 'The ears are opened, and the eyes, which are filled with a clear liquid.' The Prophet used to say, 'I worship Him Who made my face and formed it, and opened my hearing and eyesight' etc. etc" [53].

Here is someone writing a medical account who includes Hippocrates (bold type), the Qur'an and Hadith (bold italics), commentaries on them (italics) and his own thoughts (normal type) in one and the same paragraph. Of course the intelligentsia of Muhammed's time would have been familiar with both Greek and Indian medicine.

Other embryologists were known but added nothing new to Galen, for example Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn 'Abdallah Ibn Sina (AD 980-1037) who wrote a Canon Medicinae. Clement of Alexandria included familiar information and believed that the embryo was formed through the combination of semen and menstrual blood. Lactantius of Nicomedia in AD 325 opened eggs at varying stages of development.


It seems that not even Prof. Moore is sufficiently convinced by the scientific "facts" in the Qur'an to risk his reputation as a highly respected professor of anatomy in the medical establishment. The Islamic edition of his textbook is not available even in the British Library or the US Library of Congress, let alone other medical libraries in Western countries [54], presumably because he is aware that not only do the Islamic contributions in it contradict known science, but they also contradict what he has written in the standard version of his textbook. And ironically in the bibliography for the first chapter, "A history of embryology", in both the standard and Islamic versions he refers to Needham's important work on the history of embryology [55]. Needham however is unimpressed with the Arabic claims of embryology and after writing almost 60 pages about ancient Greek, Indian and Egyptian embryology he dismisses the entire Arabic tradition in less than one page, concluding that "Arabic science, so justly famed for its successes in certain fields such as optics and astronomy, was not of great help to embryology". After listing some of the verses in the Qur'an about embryology he dismisses them as merely "a seventh-century echo of Aristotle and the Ayer-veda" [56], in other words a mixture of Greek and ancient Indian teachings. In the most recent (1998) edition of The Developing Human, Moore also directs his readers to a book which contains another essay by Basim Musallam, which again points out how similar the Qur'anic science of embryology was to that of Galen, and how this close association was never questioned by the ancient Muslim scholars [57].

In conclusion then there is not a single statement contained in the Qur'an relating to modern embryology that was not well known through direct observation by the ancient Greek and Indian physicians many centuries before the Qur'an was written. Morever, much of what the Qur'an actually does say about embryology is scientifically inaccurate. The ancient physicians' works were translated into Syriac in the century preceeding Muhammed, and were therefore accessible to non-Greek speakers. We know that one of the Companions of the Prophet was a doctor who trained at the very same medical school that the Greek translations were kept and taught at. We even know that at least one of the verses which describes embryology, sura 23:14 contains the words of another of Muhammed's companions. We are forced to conclude that, far from proving the alleged divine credentials of the Qur'an, its embryological statements actually provide further convincing evidence for its human origins.


  1. Keith L. Moore (Saunders, 1982) The Developing Human, 3rd edition with Islamic Additions, p. viiic
  2. J. Goodwin (Plume/Penguin, 1995) Price of Honor - Muslim Women Lift The Veil Of Silence On The Islamic World, p. 145
  3. Moore, op. cit., pp. 14a, 446f
  4. Hippocratic Writings (Penguin Classics, 1983) p. 320
  5. Aristotle (English trans. A. L. Peck, Heinemann, 1953) Generation of Animals, 717b
  6. Famsy Conference, 8 July 1995; a related explanation is made here.
  7. Hippocratic Writings, op. cit., pp. 317-8
  8. W. Campbell (Middle East Resources, 1986) The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science, pp. 181-182
  9. K. L. Moore, (Saunders, 1998) The Developing Human, 6th edition, p. 10
  10. Aristotle, op. cit., 740a
  11. B. Torki (1979) L'Islam Religion de la Science, p. 178
  12. Al Munjid fil Lugha wala'aam (Dar Al Mashreq sarl, Lebanon, 1987)
  13. As-Suyuti, trans. Elgood (Ta-Ha, 1994) As-Suyuti's Medicine of the Prophet, p. 184ff
  14. Iman Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (English trans. Mahammad Al-Akili, Pearl, 1993) Natural Healing with the Medicine of the Prophet, p. 284
  15. Sami K. Hamarneh (Cairo, 1974), The Physician, Therapist and Surgeon Ibn al-Quff, p. 105
  16. al-Bukhari, 8.593; Muslim Kitab an-Nikah, MCII
  17. K. L. Moore, op. cit.(1998), pp. 56, 63, chapters 15 and 16
  18. Aristotle, op. cit., 729a
  19. Corpus Medicorum Graecorum: Galeni de Semine (Galen: On Semen) (Greek text with English trans. Phillip de Lacy, Akademic Verlag, 1992) section I:9:1-10 pp. 92-95, 101
  20. A. W. Meyer (Stanford, 1939) The Rise of Embryology, p. 27
  21. B. Musallam (Cambridge, 1983) Sex and Society in Islam. p. 54
  22. J. Needham (Cambridge, 2nd edition 1959) A History of Embryology, p. 77
  23. Aristotle, op. cit., 767b, 769a
  24. Aristotle, op. cit., 722a
  25. Sahih Muslim CXXV (entitled "The characteristic of the male reproductive substance and the female reproductive substance, and that the offspring is produced by the contribution of both")
  26. Famsy Conference, op. cit.
  27. Hippocrates, op. cit., pp. 320-1
  28. J. Needham, op. cit., p. 53
  29. Hippocrates, op. cit., p. 329
  30. Hippocrates, op. cit., p. 345
  31. B. Palmer (ed.) (Paternoster Press, 1986), Medicine and the Christian Mind, p. 19
  32. G. M. Gould, W. L. Pyle (Julian Press, 1896) Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine p. 296
  33. G. Sarton, (Williams and Wilkins, 1927) Introduction to the History of Science, vol I, pp. 423-424
  34. A. A. Khairallah (American Press, Beirut, 1946) Outline of Arabic Contributions to Medicine, p. 24
  35. H. Bailey (ed) (Cambridge University Press, 1975) Cambridge History of Iran, vol 4, p. 414
  36. C. Elgood (Camrbidge University Press, 1951) A Medical History of Persia, p. 98
  37. See for example Ibn Abi Usaybia, "Classes of Physicians" in 649 AH/1242AD; or al-Qifti, "History of the Philosophers", 624AH/1227AD.
  38. M. Z. Siddiqi (Calcutta University, 1959) Studies in Arabic and Persian Medical Literature, p. 6-7
  39. E. G. Browne (Cambridge University Press, 1962) Arabian Medicine, p. 11
  40. M. J. L. Young et al., (Cambridge University Press, 1990) Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Religion, Learning and Science in the `Abbasid Period, p. 342
  41. A. A. Khairallah, op. cit., p. 22
  42. C. Elgood, op. cit., p. 66
  43. C. Elgood, op. cit., p. 68 (Click here for further information about this)
  44. L. LeClerc, Histoire de la M‚decine Arabe (Burt Franklin, New York; originally published in Paris, 1876) vol I, p. 123
  45. Commentary of al-Baidawi, The Lights of Revelation (Dar al Geel), p. 184 (see on sura 6:93 for an explanation of 23:14; click here for further information about this)
  46. M. Meyerhof (1926) New light on Hunain Ibn Ishaq and his period, Isis, vol 8, pp. 685-724
  47. H. Bailey, op. cit., p. 415
  48. E. G. Browne, op. cit., p. 24-26
  49. M. Meyerhof (1931) Ali at-Tabari's "Paradise of Wisdom", one of the oldest Arabic Compendiums of Medicine, Isis, vol 16, pp. 6-54
  50. Ali b. Rabban-al-Tabari, ed. M. Z. Siddiqi (Frankfurt am Main: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, 1996, originally published in 1928) Firdausu'l-Hikmat, or Paradise of Wisdom, in vol 29, "Islamic Medicine"
  51. A. W. Meyer, op. cit., p. 27
  52. Ibn Qayyin (Damascus, 1971) Tuhfat: Tuhfat al mawdud bi ahkam al-mawlud, pp. 254-291
  53. B. Musallam, op. cit., p. 56
  54. This information was accurate as of November 1996. Obviously this "oversight" could be easily rectified by Muslim efforts in reaction to this paper. But at the time of writing (the first edition of this article), more than 14 years after the publication of the "edition with Islamic additions", this special edition of the textbook was not listed in these library catalogues.
  55. K. L. Moore, op. cit.(1998), p. 15
  56. J. Needham, op. cit., p. 82
  57. B. Musallam, The human embryo in Arabic scientific and religious thought, in, G. R. Dunstan (ed.) (University of Exeter Press, 1990) The human embryo: Aristotle and the Arabic and European traditions, pp. 32-46

Copyright 1996, 1999 by Dr. Lactantius.

The author is a practising medical doctor in the United Kingdom and would be pleased to hear your responses at Lactantius@hotmail.com. His namesake Lactantius was a celebrated apologist of the early church.

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