A SCIENTIST'S INTERPRETATION OF
REFERENCES TO EMBRYOLOGY IN THE QUR'AN
From: The Journal
of the Islamic Medical Association, Vol.18, Jan-June 1986, pp.15-16
Keith L. Moore, Ph.D., F.I.A.C.
The Department of Anatomy, University of
- Statements referring to human reproduction and
development are scattered throughout the Qur'an. It is only recently that the scientific
meaning of some of these verses has been appreciated fully. The long delay in interpreting
these verses correctly resulted mainly from inaccurate translations and commentaries and
from a lack of awareness of scientific knowledge.
- Interest in explanations of the verses of the
Qur'an is not new. People used to ask the prophet Muhammad all sorts of questions
about the meaning of verses referring to human reproduction. The Apostle's answers form
the basis of the Hadith literature.
- The translations (*) of the
verses from the Qur'an which are interpreted in this paper were provided by Sheik Abdul
Majid Zendani, a Professor of Islamic Studies in King Abdulaziz University in
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
"He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another, in three
veils of darkness."
- This statement is from Sura 39:6. We do not know
when it was realized that human beings underwent development in the uterus (womb), but the
first known illustration of a fetus in the uterus was drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in
the 15th century. In the 2nd century A.D., Galen described the placenta and fetal
membranes in his book "On The Formation of the Foetus." Consequently,
doctors in the 7th century A.D. likely knew that the human embryo developed in the uterus.
It is unlikely that they knew that it developed in stages, even though Aristotle
had described the stages of development of the chick embryo in the 4th century B.C. The
realization that the human embryo develops in stages was not discussed and illustrated
until the 15th century.
- After the microscope was discovered in the 17th
century by Leeuwenhoek descriptions were made of the early stages of the chick
embryo. The staging of human embryos was not described until the 20th century. Streeter
(1941) developed the first system of staging which has now been replaced by a more
accurate system proposed by O'Rahilly (1972).
- "The three veils of darkness" may refer
to: (1) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic
membrane (Fig. 1). Although there are other interpretations of this statement, the
one presented here seems the most logical from an embryological point of view.
|Figure 1 from this Article is Not Available
See Similar Pictures of Fetus: 2
Months | 3 Months.
|Figure 1. Drawing of a sagittal section of
a female's abdomen and pelvis showing a fetus in utero. The "veils of darkness"
are: (1) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall, and (3) the amniochorionic
"Then We placed him as a drop in a place of rest."
- This statement is from Sura 23:13. The drop or nutfah
has been interpreted as the sperm or spermatozoon, but a more meaningful interpretation
would be the zygote which divides to form a blastocyst which is implanted in the uterus
("a place of rest"). This interpretation is supported by another verse in the
Qur'an which states that "a human being is created from a mixed drop." The
zygote forms by the union of a mixture of the sperm and the ovum ("The mixed
"Then We made the drop into a leech-like structure."
- This statement is from Sura 23:14. The word "alaqah"
refers to a leech or bloodsucker. This is an appropriate description of the human embryo
from days 7-24 when it clings to the endometrium of the uterus, in the same way that a
leech clings to the skin. Just as the leech derives blood from the host, the human embryo
derives blood from the decidua or pregnant endometrium. It is remarkable how much the
embryo of 23-24 days resembles a leech (Fig. 2). As there were no microscopes or lenses
available in the 7th century, doctors would not have known that the human embryo had this
leech-like appearance. In the early part of the fourth week, the embryo is just visible to
the unaided eye because it is smaller than a kernel of wheat.
||Figure 2. Top, a drawing of a leech or
Below, a drawing of a 24 day-old human embryo. Note the leech-like appearance of
the human embryo at this stage.
||Figure 3. Left, a plasticine model of the
human embryo which has the appearance of chewed flesh.
Right, a drawing of a 28 day-old human embryo showing several bead-like somites
which resemble the teeth marks in the model shown to the left.
"Then of that leech-like structure, We made a chewed lump."
- This statement is also from Sura 23:14. The Arabic
word "mudghah" means "chewed substance or chewed lump." Toward
the end of the fourth week, the human embryo looks somewhat like a chewed lump of flesh
(Fig. 3). The chewed appearance results from the somites which resemble teeth marks. The
somites represent the beginnings or primordia of the vertebrae.
"Then We made out of the chewed lump, bones, and clothed the bones in flesh."
- This continuation of Sura 23:14 indicates that out
of the chewed lump stage, bones and muscles form. This is in accordance with embryological
development. First the bones form as cartilage models and then the muscles (flesh) develop
around them from the somatic mesoderm.
"Then We developed out of it another creature."
- This next part of Sura 23:14 implies that the bones
and muscles result in the formation of another creature. This may refer to the human-like
embryo that forms by the end of the eighth week. At this stage it has distinctive human
characteristics and possesses the primordia of all the internal and external organs and
parts. After the eighth week, the human embryo is called a fetus. This may be the new
creature to which the verse refers.
"And He gave you hearing and sight and feeling and understanding."
- This part of Sura 32:9 indicates that the special
senses of hearing, seeing, and feeling develop in this order, which is true. The primordia
of the internal ears appear before the beginning of the eyes, and the brain (the site of
understanding) differentiates last.
"Then out of a piece of chewed flesh, partly formed and partly unformed."
- This part of Sura 22:5 seems to indicate that the
embryo is composed of both differentiated and undifferentiated tissues. For example, when
the cartilage bones are differentiated, the embryonic connective tissue or mesenchyme
around them is undifferentiated. It later differentiates into the muscles and ligaments
attached to the bones.
"And We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term."
- This next part of Sura 22:5 seems to imply that God
determines which embryos will remain in the uterus until full term. It is well known that
many embryos abort during the first month of development, and that only about 30% of
zygotes that form, develop into fetuses that survive until birth. This verse has also been
interpreted to mean that God determines whether the embryo will develop into a boy or
- The interpretation of the verses in the Qur'an
referring to human development would not have been possible in the 7th century A.D., or
even a hundred years ago. We can interpret them now because the science of modern
Embryology affords us new understanding. Undoubtedly there are other verses in the Qur'an
related to human development that will be understood in the future as our knowledge
(*) Even though the translations
of the verses of the Qur'an in the above paper were provided by Sheik Abdul Majid
Zendani, the links to the translations in this page are from Yusuf Ali Qur'an
Translation. Contents provided by
- Islam and Science