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Embryology: The Bible Plagiarises Ancient Greek Literature

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Last Updated: 8 July 1999

We are glad to have the opportunity to address the points brought up in critical discussion of the research first published in 1996, "Embryology in the Qur'an", demonstrating the very clear link between the writings of ancient Greek physicians (most notably Galen) and the embryological development described in the Qur'an. A response to this paper has recently been published. Here we analyse that response.

The Christian author is described as a "practicing medical doctor in the United Kingdom" who wishes to remain anonymous. Writing under the secretive internet e-mail alias of Lactantius, the missionary writes:

"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 using the enormously influential Greek physician Galen's teachings that the second stage of foetal development is a vascular mass, in which case not only is the Qur'an wrong, but it also plagiarises ancient Greek literature!"

According to the missionary, the Qur'an plagiarises ancient Greek Literature, and as a result, it should be rejected as a divinely revealed or inspired scripture. This short paper proposes to examine the Christian charge of plagiarism, and using their own methodology apply their argument to the Bible.

For the record, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius is the name of a fourth-century apologist and defender of the Christan faith. You may read more about this illustrious predecessor by following the link above.

Proof Demanded

To plagiarise something is to commit literary theft by appropriating and passing off the ideas or words of another as one's own. The missionary accuses the Prophet Muhammad(P) of plagiarism and charges him with stealing and passing off the ideas of Galen as his own.

Yet the missionary provides no evidence, no proof whatsoever to substantiate this claim of plagiarism. The missionary cites neither the original Greek text of Galen nor the Arabic of the Qur'ân; nor does he provide a sufficiently thorough analysis of the two accounts in order to substantiate his claim.

That is a simple fault to rectify. The author had not anticipated that the majority of the audience of the original paper would be fluent either in Arabic or Greek. However, for the benefit of those readers who are, we now include the original text in Greek in which Galen describes the four stages of the Qur'an. I follow it with sura 22:5 in Arabic. Note the similarity; Galen wrote about four hundred years before Muhammed.

Galen: On Semen

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')."[1]


The Qur'an, sura 23 verses 13-14:

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 of Galen corresponds to [nutfah], the drop of semen; the second stage, a bloody vascularised embryo 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 was when all the organs were well formed, joints were freely moveable, and the foetus began to move. 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, as Director of the Centre for Middle eastern Studies in Cambridge, U.K. 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."[2]

Our critic continues:

And neither does the missionary cite any hadith or eye-witnesses accounts to prove that the Prophet(P) plagiarised ancient Greek literature. Where then is the proof that Muhammad(P) plagiarised the Galenic stages of development?

Given the close similarity between Galen's stages and the rather less detailed description of development in suras 22:5 and 23:13-14, it is particularly significant that some 26 books of Galen's work were translated into Syriac as early as the sixth century AD by Sergios of Resh' Aina (Ra's al-Ain).[3] Sergios was a Christian priest who studied medicine in Alexandria and worked in Mesopotania, dying in Constantinople in about AD 532. He was one of a number of Nestorian (Syriac) Christians who translated the Greek medical corpus into Syriac. The Nestorians experienced persecution from the mainstream church and fled to Persia, where they brought their completed translations of the Greek physicians' 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 Anusharwan.

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.[4]

According to Muslim medical historians, including ibn Abi Usaybia and al-Qifti, the most celebrated early graduate of Jundishapur was a doctor named al Harith ibn Kalada.[5] Faced with the collection of Syriac manuscripts of Greek physicians which had recently been introduced to Jundishapur, it is inconceivable that he would not have been aware of Galen's theories. Furthermore, al Harith was an older contemporary of Muhammed and became one of the Companions of the Prophet. We are told by Muslim historians that Muhammed actually sought medical advice from him[6], and his "teachings undoubtedly influenced the latter" [i.e., Muhammed].[7] Cyril Elgood writes:

"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 Jundishapur 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."[8]

One further point should be made here. According to Muslim traditions part of at least one of the verses in the Qur'an relating 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.[9] Since we know that some of the words in this aya came from one of Muhammed's companions, what is there to stop us believing that other words in this passage came from another of his companions, namely al Harith, who was summarising Galen's theory of embryological development?

If the missionary is unable to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Muhammad(P) plagiarised the Galenic stages of development then why make such an accusation in the first place?

From the evidence cited above a number of things become clear.

  1. The works of Galen, Hippocrates and Aristotle, written originally in Greek were translated into Syriac in the century preceding the birth of Muhammed.
  2. The Syriac translations were kept, and taught, in the newly founded medical school at Jundishapur, in what is now Iran.
  3. One of the earliest and most celebrated doctors to graduate from Jundishapur was al Harith ibn Kalada.
  4. Al Harith ibn Kalada became a companion of the Prophet and influenced his medical beliefs, according to Muslim historians of this period.
  5. At least one phrase from sura 23:14 comes from human lips. `Abdullah ibn Abi Sarh, on listening to Muhammed reciting sura 23:14 added the words "Blessed be God, the best of creators!" and Muhammed considered these additional words to be part of God's inspired Qur'an too.
  6. Putting all this together, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that other phrases could, and indeed were, added to the Qur'anic verses on human reproduction. These phrases were none other than Muhammed's summaries of what he heard his companion al Harith tell him about human reproduction and development, which in turn was based upon his education at Jundishapur in the Greek tradition.
  7. Thus when the Qur'an says in sura 40:67, "It is He Who has created you from dust, then from a Nutfah [mixed semen drops of male and female sexual discharges (i.e. Adam's offspring)] then from a clot (a piece of coagulated blood), then brings you forth as an infant, then (makes you grow) to reach the age of full strength, and afterwards to be old ... that you may reach an appointed time in order that you may understand", what are Muhammed's readers to understand from this? Similarly, why does sura 22:5 begin "O, Mankind! If you are in doubt about the Resurrection, then verily, We have created you (i.e. Adam) from dust ..."? The answer is crystal clear. They are to understand the significance of that which was common knowledge - the stages of embryology as taught by Greek physicians. This knowledge was to be a sign to encourage the listeners to turn to God and believe.

The above should more than suffice to justify my accusation that the Qur'an plagiarises ancient Greek science.

Does the Bible Plagiarise Ancient Greek Literature?

What if we were to apply this method of reasoning to the Bible itself? What if we were to apply the same standards against the Bible? If we were to find the Bible plagiarising ancient Greek Literature, then it too should also 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.

So, what does the Bible say concerning Embryology? In this section we cite embryological references to be found in Bible using the same source as used by the missionary, A History of Embryology by Joseph Needham.

"There are two passages of embryological importance. Firstly, in the Book of Job (10:10), Job is made to say,

`Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast fashioned me as clay; and wilt thou bring me into the dust again! Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.'

This comparison of embryogeny with the making of cheese is interesting in view of the fact that precisely the same comparison occurs in Aristotle's book On the Generation of Animals, as we have already seen."[10]

However, what is overlooked is the fact that the book of Job was most probably written long before Aristotle, using the common themes of creation from clay, the dust of the earth; and curdling like cheese. The Hebrew in Job is difficult to translate - indeed, the Septuagint [Greek translation] of Job omits certain lines which presumably they did not fully understand. The word for "curdling like cheese" is a case in point, found nowhere else in the Bible and being an ancient Hebrew construct.

"Still more extraordinary, the only other embryological reference in the Wisdom Literature, which occurs in the Wisdom of Solomon (vii. 2), also copies an Aristotelian theory, namely, that the embryo is formed from (menstrual) blood. There the speaker says,

`In the womb of a mother was I moulded into flesh in the time of ten months, being compacted with blood of the seed of man and the pleasure that accompanieth sleep.'"[11]

Needham concludes that both references in the Bible can be traced back to Aristotle and even Hippocrates:

"Perhaps it is no coincidence that both these citations can be referred back to Aristotle, and in the second case even to Hippocrates; perhaps the Alexandrian Jews of the third century B.C. were studying Aristotle as attentively as Philo Judaeus studied Plato a couple of hundred years later."

The Wisdom of Solomon is part of the Apocrypha, and consequently was considered canonical neither by the Jews, nor the early Christians. It is still not regarded as canonical by Protestant Christians. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament quote the Old Testament extensively, but not once do they mention any book from the Apocrypha (1 Enoch 1:8 and 60:8, cited by Jude is not part of the Catholic Apocrypha, and he uses the passage in Jude 14-15 for illustration rather than for proof of doctrine). Jerome, the Catholic translator of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate translation) included them but described them as "books of the church", helpful for believers but not "books of the Canon". The earliest Christian list of Old Testament books, written by Melito, Bishop of Sardis in 170 A.D. mentions every Old Testament book except Esther, but fails to mention anything from the Apocrypha.

Since it was not until the Council of Trent in 1546 A.D. that the Catholic Church officially declared the Apocrypha to be part of the Canon of Scripture, it seems unnecessary to defend the inclusion of Hippocratic theories in a book which is not generally recognised to have been part of the Biblical Canon for most of the history of Christianity.[12]


The Christian missionary needs to explain to the Muslim:

  • Why the Bible uses the enormously influential teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle?
  • As discussed above, the verse from Job is likely to have been written before Aristotle, so perhaps we should ask whether the Bible inspired Aristotle rather than the other way round.

  • Why other non-Christian scriptures (e.g. the Qur'an) would be rejected as a divinely revealed or inspired scripture if they used (or were influenced by) the writings of ancient Greek scientists - but the Bible would not?
  • The Qur'an claims that its words are the very words of Allah (c.f. sura 1:2 "This is the Book [the Qur'an], whereof there is no doubt...", or sura 17:105 "With truth We have sent it [the Qur'an] down") If we can demonstrate that a sura, or even a verse has been copied from elsewhere the claim to be God's inspired Word collapses. We have, indeed fulfilled the Qur'anic challenge to "bring a sura like it" (sura 2:23).

  • Why the Prophet Muhammad(P) is charged with plagiarism but the authors of Job and the Wisdom of Solomon are not?
  • By all means charge the author of Wisdom with plagiarising Aristotle, since the Jews and early Christians never considered the words of Wisdom to be equal in authority to the Old and New Testament.

  • Why Christian missionaries continue to charge the Prophet Muhammad(P) with plagiarism of the Galenic stages of development even though they have failed to prove their case?
  • Because the circumstantial evidence for Muhammed introducing the ideas of Galen into the Qur'an is overwhelming, as discussed earlier.

  • Why do these missionaries reject the Wisdom of Solomon as a divinely inspired scripture when majority of the world's Christians accept it as the word of God?
  • Because neither Jews nor the early Christians (including Melito and Jerome), nor modern Protestants accept the Wisdom of Solomon to be divinely inspired, as was made quite clear earlier.


    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

    B. Musallam (Cambridge, 1983) Sex and Society in Islam. p. 54

    G. Sarton, (Williams and Wilkins, 1927) Introduction to the History of Science, vol I, pp. 423-424

    H. Bailey (ed) (Cambridge University Press, 1975) Cambridge History of Iran, vol 4, p. 414

    E. G. Browne (Cambridge University Press, 1962) Arabian Medicine, p. 11

    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

    A. A. Khairallah (American Press, Beirut, 1946) Outline of Arabic Contributions to Medicine, p. 22

    C. Elgood (Cambridge University Press, 1951) A Medical History of Persia, p. 66

    Commentary of al-Baydhawi (Lights of Revelation (Dar al Geel)) p. 184.
    A detailed discussion can be found on the pages regarding Ibn Abi Sarh.

    J. Needham (Cambridge, 2nd edition 1959) A History of Embryology, p. 64

    J. Needham, ibid.

    W. Grudem (Inter-Varsity Press, 1994) Systematic Theology, pp. 57-59

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